On March 9, 1995, Edward Bernays, the man widely viewed as holder of the dubious title “father of public relations” in America, died at the age of 103. Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud through both his mother and father, employed scientific methodology to achieve what he called the “engineering of consent” – persuading people through indirect means to believe in something they didn’t yet know was good for them.
An example was the post-World War I campaign to make it socially acceptable for women to smoke. Bernays, working for the American Tobacco Company, hired models to march in the 1929 Easter Parade on New York’s Fifth Avenue, smoking “torches of freedom.” Later, he engineered a campaign to make the color green more pervasive in American fashion – so as to help sales of Lucky Strike cigarettes, whose packages displayed both red and green.
Bernays was born in Vienna on November 22, 1891. His mother, Anna Freud Bernays, was the sister of Sigmund; his father, Eli Bernays, was the brother of Freud’s wife, the former Martha Bernays. The year after Edward’s birth, his family moved to New York, where he was raised and where, after attaining an agriculture degree at Cornell University in 1912, he opened an office in 1919.
One of Bernays’ first projects, even before hanging out a shingle, was to stir up public support for the American production of a French play called “Damaged Goods,” about the perils of syphilis, an episode described by Larry Tye in his 1998 biography of Bernays. To overcome American taboos about even discussing venereal disease, Bernays engineered an “educational” campaign to fight prostitution that was so successful it elicited endorsements for “Damaged Goods” from John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Bernays’ brilliance was in getting the press to make his case for his client. Journalists’ stories were more credible than advertising, and cheaper. He solicited opinions from “experts” and organized surveys, whose conclusions would later be disseminated via press releases, another of his innovations. Working for a pork producer in the 1920s, for example, he came up with recommendations from thousands of doctors for Americans to start the day with a breakfast of bacon and eggs.
During World War I, Bernays worked with President Woodrow Wilson to build support for America’s participation in the war and later the Versailles peace conference. In 1924, he brought celebrities to the White House to have breakfast with Calvin “Silent Cal” Coolidge, a Bernays client, leading to a page 1 story in The New York Times the following day headlined “President Nearly Laughs.” In the 1950s, in the pay of the United Fruit Corporation, he built up support among Americans for the CIA-sponsored overthrow of the democratically elected government of leftist President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, of Guatemala.
In his 1965 autobiography, Bernays expressed some shock at learning in 1933 from an American journalist who had recently returned from Berlin how Nazi propaganda chief Josef Goebbels was consulting Bernays’ book “Crystallizing Public Opinion” to whip up hatred for Jews among Germans.
Edward Bernays died at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on this day in 1995.
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