He was the star of the PR industry in the 1920s. He is called the father of modern PR and the father of today's spin-doctors. Although he played a major role in shaping and influencing the 20th
century, he is hardly known outside the PR industry: Edward L. Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, was born in Vienna in 1891 and grew up in the USA.
At the beginning of the 20th century, advertising was limited to praising functional product features or badmouthing the competitors. Because consumption as we know it today did not yet exist. People only bought what they needed. But as industrialization progressed, masses of goods flooded the market. Competition between companies became increasingly fierce, so that new advertising measures became necessary in order to stand out from the growing competition.
... and then came Edward Bernays
During this time of upheaval, PR offices were launched all over the USA and one of their stars was Edward Bernays. How did he do that?
Working as a press agent in New York since 1913, he was involved in the "Committee on Public Information" and proved in 1917 to be a skillful propagandist and political PR strategist, who successfully swayed the American public to be in favor of America's interference in the First World War with the slogan "Make the world safe for democracy".
How to influence the masses
From his work with the committee, Sigmund Freud's nephew and an avid reader of his uncle's writings concluded that influencing and manipulating the masses should also be possible in peacetime.
His method: advertising by detours. He created events that were later reported about in the media. Those reports were supposed to arouse the reader's need for a certain product. He successfully
changed attitudes and opinions in order to make his clients' products attractive on the large goods market.
Probably best known is his campaign "Torches of Freedom", which he developed for the American tobacco industry and which is now regarded by PR and marketing experts as a milestone for the new advertising age. The social conventions and laws in the USA of the 1920s forbade women to smoke publicly. Bernays cleaned up and made women who smoked in public socially acceptable over night.
Bernays hired several women to smoke cigarettes in front of everyone during the traditional Easter parade in New York in 1929. However, he had spread the following information among the press: A group of feminists would ignite the "torches of freedom" at the parade. The press was there and watched the taboo break live. Of course, all the newspapers reported on the scandal the following day. The event changed social conventions: From there on, cigarettes were regarded as a symbol of the emancipated woman. And the tobacco industry had tapped into a large new target group and made a lot of money.
The father of modern PR
The father of modern PR
Bernays developed PR campaigns for a wide range of clients according to this scheme. For a ham producer with falling sales figures he established the American Breakfast with "Bacon and Eggs" and made a boring presidential candidate an interesting personality. To sell products or popularize people he changed world views and twisted conventions. With his numerous PR campaigns, Bernays modernized the PR industry and promoted a consumer culture of emotions in which people buy what makes them feel good. In 1995, the successful opinion leader and propagandist of modern PR died at the age of 103.
The way he manipulated people has very little to do with the factually oriented press work we do today. We live in a different world and with a very enlightened readership. However, the strategies he used to attract attention to the cause of his clients were very effective and can still be an inspiration for PR and marketing, and above all, for lobbying today