Edward L. Bernays was an Austrian-American public relations expert and nephew of Sigmund Freud. Bernays, referred to in his New York Times obituary as the “Father of Public Relations,” became famous for his promotional campaigns for the U.S. Government and NGOs, as well as for commercial brands such as Lucky Strikes and Venida hairnets. His methods drew heavily on the work of European psychologists and fueled transatlantic debates about the vices and virtues of propaganda and the “engineering of consent” at the middle of the twentieth century. His campaigns were influential in marketing to such a degree that even today his ideas on PR remain omnipresent in the United States and in university public relations curricula everywhere.
Bernays came to the United States when he was only a year old. His father Eli Bernays, a grain merchant, and his mother Anna Freud Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s sister, moved from Vienna, Austria to New York City in 1892. Bernays grew up in New York City and later attended Cornell University where he received a bachelor's degree in agriculture in 1912. However, he soon ventured into journalism and, after that, into promotional work.
Bernays’ work and writing was influenced by the psychoanalytic theories of his uncle Sigmund Freud, but also by American journalist and technocratic theorist Walter Lippmann, French mass psychologist Gustave Le Bon, and British neurosurgeon and social psychologist Wilfred Trotter. Synthesizing their work, Bernays argued that it was important to use mass psychology when addressing irrational and misguided mass behavior. He thought it necessary not only to give information to the public—for their consideration and to encourage them to act accordingly—but also to pursue what he termed an “engineering of consent,” which he understood to mean the influencing of people’s opinion and therefore their behavior. To that end, Bernays acted as the “engineer of consent” behind the scenes, not always disclosing his clients, to promote the general product they aimed to sell, but not necessarily a specific brand.
Such use of mass psychology—whether for public or commercial purposes—also drew criticism at a time when, especially in Europe, totalitarian propaganda had become rampant. Bernays was aware that his theories were read by Goebbels, and later acknowledged that he knew it was possible to misuse his methodology. However, he defended his methods as crucial for helping minorities make their views heard and, in doing so, guiding the majority’s formation of widely-held opinions for the greater good of a democratic society.
Developing a Career in Public Relations with Doris Fleischman
After a brief stint as a journalist, Bernays focused his career on the emerging field of public relations, using the self-styled title of “public relations counselor.” From 1913 until 1917, he worked on his first promotional campaigns for theatrical producers and the New York Metropolitan Opera. In 1918 he became a member of the now infamous United States Committee for Public Information, also known as the “Creel Committee.” He was mainly responsible for propaganda material sent to Latin America, but also helped to organize propaganda for Polish and Czechoslovakian freedom fighters and against the German leadership within Germany. Officially he was the head of the Export Section and co-head of the Latin American Section of the Foreign Press Bureau. In this capacity, he was sent to the Versailles Peace Conference, but the Creel Committee was unable to play a significant role there due to the public debate surrounding the Committee’s alleged deception of the American public during the war years—something the Republicans in Congress claimed promoted censorship in support of President Wilson.
Building on his wartime experiences, Bernays and his future wife Doris E. Fleischman, who worked alongside her husband until she died in 1980, opened their own public relations office. Doris E. Fleischman, a native of New York City, was an equal partner in the company and came up with many of the campaigns. However, just as Edward Bernays intentionally never became a publicly-known figure to the degree that his work was public, Fleischman chose to work completely behind the scenes. Still, she was a well-known feminist, having published on feminism and especially on women in the workforce.
The E. L. Bernays Company used many of the same techniques its founder had previously employed in governmental campaigns. For example, it staged a lobbying campaign for Lithuanian independence and, together with fellow PR-man Carl Byoir, helped persuade the U.S. Congress to recognize the Lithuanian state. While Bernays soon left political PR to work primarily with private businesses, he again became involved in politics in the 1930s. He first served on president Hoover’s Emergency Task Force on employment and later campaigned against the Roosevelt administration’s New Deal as the public relations counselor to the National Association of Manufacturers.
In his political and commercial PR work, Bernays used the social sciences to understand and motivate consumer behavior. To that end, he famously employed psychoanalysis. One example was his well-known campaign for American Tobacco. To increase sales, the campaign encouraged women to smoke publicly alongside men—something that was frowned upon (or even illegal) in many states at the time. Bernays turned to Austrian-American psychoanalyst Abraham Brill for advice on what could motivate women to smoke. Brill thought that women wanted to smoke, but were held back by the widely-held belief that cigarettes “titillate[d] the erogenous zones of the lips” (Interview with Edward Bernays)—a taboo that Brill suggested could be overcome if smoking was linked to women’s emancipation and gender equality. Eagerly making use of this suggestion, Bernays enlisted a group of female debutantes to smoke in the 1929 Easter Parade, calling cigarettes “torches of freedom” and ensuring that the gathering received prominent press coverage. Bernays later stressed that he was unaware of the health-damaging effects of cigarettes at the time, and even campaigned against them in the 1960s.
More than merely a practitioner, Edward Bernays was a prolific author on public relations theory, publishing his two most influential books in the early years of his career: Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923) and Propaganda (1928). In Propaganda he criticizes behaviorism, commonly used by American advertisers at the time, for being “mechanistic reaction psychology” and outdated, and suggested that it be replaced by the ideas put forth by “psychologists of the school of Freud” (Bernays 1928, p. 75–76). While working on his own books, he also arranged for Sigmund Freud’s writings to be translated into English and distributed in the American market. Freud himself, to be sure, was less impressed by Bernays’ work, or at least saw it as distinctly separate from the psychoanalysis upon which it claimed to build, once commenting that “crystallizing public opinion” was a “truly American production”(Quoted in Bernays 1965, p. 270).
Even though Bernays’ work may have struck his European contemporaries as peculiarly “American,” he maintained many ties to leading European intellectuals, many of whom had come to the United States by the 1930s. Since Bernays’ PR theories drew heavily on psychoanalysis, he was well connected in this field. Apart from his uncle Sigmund Freud, he was also in touch with other leading analysts such as Sándor Ferenczi, who held lectures in New York City at the New School for Social Research and in Washington, D.C. in 1926. He also knew well-known émigré psychologists such as the Gestalt theorist Max Wertheimer. Bernays maintained connection to Europe both through his family ties and his professional life; he knew leading intellectuals like Stefan Zweig and was engaged in public debates with marketing experts such as the Viennese émigrés Paul Lazarsfeld and Ernest Dichter. Particularly in the 1930s and 1940s, Bernays seemed to have been a first point of contact in the United States for Jewish friends and family trying to flee Europe.
During and after World War II, Bernays' professional network of contacts and clients expanded beyond German-speaking Central Europe. His work for NGOs over the years included not only the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), but also notably the “Friends of Danish Freedom and Democracy” in 1940. In 1949, Bernays and Fleischman went on a trip to Great Britain in order to analyze the public relations techniques used by the British Government. While there, they met several British PR experts and scholars. In 1950, following the visit, they published their study “What the British Think of Us: A Study of British Hostility to America and Americans and Its Motivation, with Recommendations for Improving Anglo-American Relations.” In it, they assert that hostility felt by the British people towards the United States was chiefly a reaction to U.S. foreign policy. To counter this ill will, the study recommended the development of strong PR campaigns aimed at showing national similarities, such as a shared belief in “freedom.”
Though claims that Bernays was the “founding father” of public relations may go too far, he was nevertheless one of the first to employ its techniques for businesses instead of governments. Furthermore, as a lecturer at New York University in 1923, he became the first instructor of PR. His oeuvre includes fifteen books and more than three hundred articles, some of which are still considered foundational works for the study of public relations. Bernays gained further recognition through his involvement with the 1929 campaign “Light’s Golden Jubilee,” which urged Americans to switch on their lights at the exact same moment to celebrate fifty years of Edison’s lightbulb. The nation-wide campaign for the General Electric Company and Henry Ford attracted the participation of many celebrities and was widely broadcasted.
While the public was often unaware that Bernays stood behind many of the events he orchestrated, the campaigns in which he was involved made his ideas and the interests of his clients well-known to a broad audience. Moreover, the psychological ideas that influenced his strategies and were expressed in his writings traveled back to Europe, having been turned into marketing instruments.
Still, his legacy remains contested. In the early years of his career, Bernays stressed that a public relations counsel should work towards liberating the consumer from “her” choices and saw it necessary to inform the consumer of better ones. However, later in his writings this notion does not appear anymore. All in all, he defended his work and viewpoints on the “engineering of consent” by claiming that public relations would provide journalists, customers, and citizens with “truthful, accurate and verifiable news” to help them make better decisions (Bernays 1923, p. 182). He claimed it was the only way for minority opinions to be heard. Yet due to the nature of his ideas as well as the goods and ideas for which he developed campaigns, Edward L. Bernays’ influence on the field of PR remains subject to heated debate. While some think of him as a pioneering genius in his field, he has often been criticized and accused of being an elitist willing to abuse the powers of mass persuasion. Despite having published his memoirs in 1965, Bernays lived to the age of 103—and reportedly worked until he was 100—before dying in 1995.
Bernays, Edward L. Biography of an Idea: Memoirs of Public Relations Counselor Edward L. Bernays. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965.
Bernays, Edward L. Crystallizing Public Opinion. New York: Boni and Liveright, Inc., 1923.
Bernays, Edward L. Propaganda. New York: Liveright Publishing Corp., 1928.
Bernays, Edward L., ed. The Engineering of Consent. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1955.
Bernays, Edward L. and Doris Fleischman. What the British Think of Us: A Study of British Hostility to America and Americans and Its Motivation, with Recommendations for Improving Anglo-American Relations. New York, 1950.
Curtis, Adam. Century of the Self. 240 min., (BBC Four, 2002), DVD.
Ewen, Stuart. PR!: A Social History of Spin. New York: Basic Books, 1996.
Koltun-Fromm, Ken. Material Culture and Jewish Thought in America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010.
Larson, Keith A. Public Relations, the Edward L. Bernayses and the American Scene: A Bibliography. Westwood, MA: F. W. Faxon Company, Inc., 1978.
Tye, Larry. The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays & the Birth of PR. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1998.
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