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Introduction, The Edward Bernays Reader



"The Edward Bernays Reader: From Propaganda to the Engineering of Consent," is the first comprehensive volume of the writings of this influential and controversial figure. In addition to featuring extended excerpts from "Crystallizing Public Opinion" and "Propaganda," this book also includes the full text of Bernays’ classic 1947 essay, “The Engineering of Consent,” on the application of scientific principles and practices to the task of getting people to support ideas and programs, as well as extensive selections of his other writings on subjects including education, war propaganda, and polling. Taken together, the material in this book offers the most complete look to date at the work of a man whose ideas are considered the single most important influence on modern propaganda, public relations, and spin. Featuring an introduction by Nancy Snow.
The Edward Bernays Reader: From Propaganda to the Engineering of Consent
Introduction by Nancy Snow, pp. 5-11
New York, NY: Ig Publishing, 2021
ISBN: 978-163246-204-6
The Merriam-Webster dictionary distinguishes between two types of influencers. The first
and original definition refers to “a person who inspires or guides the actions of others.The
twenty-first century meaning of an influencer more often than not refers to “a person who is
able to generate interest in something (such as a consumer product) by posting about it on
social media.” The first definition connotes exclusivity. Not everyone can be an influencer
without proper training, education, and insight. The latter connotes inclusivity. Anyone can
be a social media influencer with enough moxie and drive to become talked about or
followed online.
Bernays was the ursprung influencer. There is no one who compares to him before or
since he lived. His life’s work, the most influential of which is presented in this book, was
astonishingly ahead of its time but also seamlessly applicable to today’s media and
propaganda environment.
The Viennese-born Edward Louis Bernays, double nephew of Sigmund Freud,
have heartily rejected the populist concept today that anyone can be an influencer. He
believed in war and peacetime propaganda campaigns that served the interests of the ruling
power classes against the unreliable, undisciplined, but malleable masses. Bernays would
surely have been repelled by the lowest common denominator tendencies in today’s social
media platforms where often the most sensationalized images get the most likes. He was a
man of letters who graduated from Cornell University, part of the elite Ivy League in his
adopted country, the United States.
At first glance it might appear that his 1912 degree in agriculture—he initially aspired
to work in his father’s grain export business—was far adrift from his future profession in
press agentry, journalism, and wartime propaganda. But indeed, the verb form of the noun
propaganda has agricultural origins. To propagate is to cause an organism to be fruitful and
multiply by process of reproduction from the parent stock, like a farmer seeding his growing
field. In the case of Bernays, he was literally the parent stock of the discipline and industry
we know today as public relations. His offspring were those ideas that took flight on behalf of
his clients, the foremost being the United States government during World War I. In seven
short years after graduation and the war’s end in 1919, he opened his office as Public
Relations Counselor in New York City. Public Relations Counselor had a much better ring to
it than Government Propagandist and so began Bernays’ seventy-year venture into building a
client base and self-promoting his own reputation as the nation’s foremost persuader and
creator of overt acts through covert means. He died in 1995 at age 103.
While Bernays is acknowledged as pioneering the field of public relations—he’s often
referred to as its father or grandfather—his influence is not discussed enough in scholarly
circles. The modern public relations industry doesn’t seem to quite know what to do with him
or his legacy since he is forever associated with the pejorative term propaganda, a concept in
the United States that is almost universally reviled as lies or what only one’s worst enemy
engages in. Students of PR do not think of themselves as corporate propagandists and avoid
association with its ancillaries like spin doctoring and hucksterism. To its credit, the Museum
of Public Relations in New York City acknowledges Bernays as a pioneer in the field.
Bernays openly embraced propaganda because he believed that it worked well, with
his proper guidance and counsel, to support client opinions as the public’s own interests. A
man who published works such as Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923) and Propaganda
(1928) is a man of self-assuredness about the impact of his public opinion management on
His mother was Freud’s sister. His father was the brother of Freud’s wife.
people’s thinking and behavior. It’s no surprise that another man of influence of Bernays’
era, Henry Luce, would identify Bernays in Life magazine as one of the 100 most influential
Americans of the twentieth century. Both men would bookend the apex of influence in the
American century.
Journalist Bill Moyers interviewed Bernays for his 1983 program, “The Image
The then nonagenarian Bernays told Moyers that his public relations counsel was a
form of good propaganda (aka “proper-ganda”) and not “improper-ganda.” Woodrow
Wilson’s Committee on Public Information (Creel Committee), for which Bernays first
worked, was a propaganda operation designed to persuade the masses at home and abroad
that World War I would be “the war to end all wars” and would help to “make the world safe
for democracy.” After the war, Bernays accompanied President Wilson as a press attaché to
the peace talks in Paris where he witnessed the emotional zeal that the Europeans placed on
the great liberator, Wilson. When he returned to America, Bernays said, “I decided that if you
could use propaganda for war, you could certainly use it for peace.”
In the Flapper 1920s, Bernays hung up his sign in service to private clients, giving
public relations a commercial capitalist tinge. One of his first industry clients was the
Beech-nut Company which produced bacon. It wasn’t enough to devise a plan to ask
war-fatigued consumers to eat more Beech-nut bacon product; Bernays wanted to be an
indispensable PR counsel to the entire bacon producing industry. Just like he had during
wartime with selling war for democracy, Bernays chose to associate bacon with something
important in peacetime America, the ideal meat choice for the first big meal before fathers
went off to work and children went off to school. Who better to shape that opinion than male
doctors in white coats, who gave testimonials associating bacon with a hearty breakfast and
an excellent way to start one’s day? Ordering an American-style breakfast anywhere in the
world will, even today, almost always produce a plate of bacon and eggs.
American Tobacco Company president George W. Hill sought the counsel of Bernays
to help him serve their growing female client base who had earned the right to vote in 1920.
Unlike men, women who smoked could do so only in private as it was considered unladylike
if she smoked walking down the street. She might as well have been a street walker. Bernays
chose to tear down the wall between the private and public by associating women’s rights to
vote with smoking. The annual Easter Parade in New York City offered an opportunity for
Bernays to hire fashionable models, including his own secretary Bertha Hunt, to walk along
taking drags on their “torches of freedom.” The undercover Hunt signed a telegram sent to a
list of New York’s finest debutantes: “In the interests of equality of the sexes and to fight
another sex taboo I and other young women will light another torch of freedom by smoking
cigarettes while strolling on Fifth Avenue Easter Sunday.” Bernays hired photographers to
document his campaign. The front page of the Monday, April 1, 1929 New York Times read:
“Group of Girls Puff at Cigarettes as a Gesture of ‘Freedom.’” The article described the
manufactured event: “About a dozen young women strolled back and forth between St.
Thomas’s and St. Patrick’s while the parade was at its peak, ostentatiously smoking
cigarettes. Two were asked which brand they favored and they named it. One of the group
explained the cigarettes were ‘torches of freedom’ lighting the way to the day when women
could smoke on the street as casually as men.” Could the group spokeswoman have been the
planted Ms. Hunt?
Within five weeks, freedom-loving female puffers were allowed access to the
smoking areas of theaters, just like men. Spokespeople and sponsorship. Now that’s the
American way of promoting democracy! After the first Surgeon General Report in 1964
Bill Moyers, The Image Makers, “A Walk Through the 20th Century,” Public Broadcasting System, April 14,
linked quitting smoking to healthy longevity, Bernays made an about face and rejected any
further association with tobacco manufacturers. He could no longer advise a company whose
product, when used as advertised, could kill or shorten the life of its user.
As a doctoral student of international relations at American University’s School of
International Service in Washington, D.C., I missed an opportunity to see Mr. Bernays in
person—at the ripe old age of ninety-seven—in 1989 when he presented a founder’s
perspective on public relations at AU’s School of Communication.
His interviewer, Dean
Sanford Ungar, prompted Bernays to reveal one of his first political campaigns, which was to
soften the dour image of Calvin Coolidge. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of Teddy,
had adopted an already trafficked bon mot that Coolidge looked as if he had been weaned on
a pickle.
The salty expression soon went national. Bernays said that the best way to combat
any rumor is not with the obvious response, denial. Better to blanket the rumor with an overt
act, an idea that he based on the work of his fellow Committee on Public Information
member, journalist Walter Lippman. Lippman, who published Public Opinion (1922)
eighteen months before Bernays published his first book, Crystallizing Public Opinion,
described news as “any overt act that juts out of the routine of circumstance.”
A good public relations man like Bernays advised his client to carry out some overt
act in order to interrupt the continuity of life. This will bring about a response that favors the
client’s goals.
In case of Coolidge, the sourpuss president needed a personality makeover.
What would a true curmudgeon weaned on a pickle never do? Invite a group of prominent
Broadway vaudevillian actors and performers like Al Jolson and Ziegfeld Follies girls to have
a pancake breakfast with him at The White House. And this is exactly what Bernays arranged
for on Friday, October 17, 1924. After breakfast, the group reconvened on the White House
lawn where Al Jolson sang the 1924 campaign song whose lyrics included Coolidge is the
one. Without a lot of fuss, he did a lot for us, so let’s reciprocate and keep him there! He’s
never asleep, still water runs deep. In reality, Coolidge was known to take daily two-hour
A lively breakfast with artists went against Silent Cal’s typecasting and just like with
the Easter Parade emancipators, it led to front page news across the country. Coolidge won
54 percent of the vote in a three-way race in the 1924 election. Bernays explained his role in
the Library of Congress collection, Prosperity and Thrift: The Coolidge Era and the
Consumer Economy, 1921-1929. “I was applying an old press agent technique of adding
newsworthy names to the austere person of the President of the United States in an event that
jutted out of the routine of circumstance and made news.”
Edward Bernays has been dead for over a quarter of a century. He was born before
radio, television and movies and died at the birth of the internet and the world wide web.
He’s noted for his elite corporate clients, but also handled national publicity in 1920 for the
NAACP’s eleventh annual conference in Atlanta, Georgia, the first held outside a northern
city. Bernays laid out a case for curbing the Great Northward Migration by associating the
political economy prospects of African Americans with Southern economic interests. Other
causes were not so progressive. He was the chief propagandist for the United Fruit Company
(later known as Chiquita Brands International) that back then controlled 42 percent of the
land in Guatemala. He advised the country to support a CIA-backed military coup in 1954
with its “army of liberation” to overthrow the democratically-elected Arbenz administration
that had bought back company land for use by 100,000 poor families. This time the
Edward Bernays, “Public Relations: A Founder’s Perspective,” American University School of
Communication, January 23, 1989.
Robert Klose, “In era of Trump, I miss the reticence of Calvin Coolidge,” Bangor Daily News, January 10,
Stuart Ewen, PR! A Social History of Spin. New York: Basic Books, 1996.
newspaper headlines were not so friendly, condemning the coup as a form of “economic
Harold Burson, CEO and co-founder of one of the world’s largest public relations
firm, Burson-Marsteller, once said, “We’re still singing off the hymn book that Bernays gave
us.” This endorsement came from a man who was named by PR Week “the most influential
P.R. person of the 20th century,” but whose firm also represented nation rebranding trade and
tourism campaigns for dictatorial regimes in Argentina, Romania, and Nigeria. In his 1965
autobiography, Bernays revealed his shock that Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Reichsminister of
Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, had used Crystallizing Public Opinion for guidance in
a deliberate and planned campaign of destruction against the Jewish people. We all are left to
ponder what Bernays would advise for overt acts in support of client interests in an ocean of
trolling farms and character assassination Twitter wars. Where would improper-ganda end
and proper-ganda begin? This book will provide some clues.
—Nancy Snow, May 2021
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