Edward Bernays – the Father of ‘Spin’

‘would have instantly recognized the media machinations and behind-the-secenes manouverings.  Edward Bernays almost single handedly fashioned the craft that has come to  be called public relations….Bernays had designed a campaign in Guatemala, one where Guatamala’s socialist leader Jacobo Arbenez Guzman was demonised…and where the US public was made to believe it was fighting against tyranny.  The real beneficiary of that get-tough-policy was the United Fruit Company, whose banana republic was threatened by Guatamala’s leftist government….Bernays demonstrated to an entire generation of budding PR men and women the enormous power that lay within their grasp.’  (Tye, 2002)

In developing and codifying his approach Bernays blended the insights into individual psychology discovered by his uncle Sigmund Freud with contemporary insights into group dynamics and crowd psychology.  Bernays publicised his methods in a series of books that provided the underpinning for what became the public relations profession – perhaps most notably inPropaganda first published in 1928.  The word propaganda has sinister connotations – not least through the use of propaganda techniques by Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany.  However, Bernays intentions, if not entirely benign, were certainly not destructive.  Basically he sought to set out the ways in which politicians and businesses might first of all understand their public and then seek to influence, mould, create and direct their opinions and tastes. He claimed in this context that:-

‘In theory, everybody buys the best and cheapest commodities offered on the market.  In practice, if everyone went around pricing, and chemically testing before purchasing, the dozens of soaps or fabrics or brands of bread which are for sale, economic life would be hopelessly jammed.  To avoid such confusion, society consents to have its choice narrowed to ideas and objects brought to its attention through propaganda of all kinds.  There is consequently a vast continuous effort going on to capture our minds in the interest of some policy or commodity or idea….If the public becomes more intelligent in its commercial demands, commercial firms will meet the new standards.  If it becomes weary of the old methods used to persuade it to accept a given idea or commodity, its leaders will present their appeals more intelligently.  Propaganda will never die out.’ (Bernays, 1928)

Context and association

Two specific concepts were central to Bernays’ approach – namely context and association.  Instead of merely taking a direct approach to marketing a product or service along the lines of ‘you should buy this!’, Bernays sought to influence the context the product or service inhabited and also to associate the product or service with a specific individual (such as a film star) or group (such as physicians).  Bernays had a very long career but a single example from relatively early in his life serves to illustrate the two concepts – namely the campaign to encourage women to smoke.  During the first world war smoking habits in the USA were changed as men shifted from traditional pipes, cigars and chewing tobacco to cigarettes.  Cigarettes were even included in soldiers’ rations.  Returming soldiers continued to smoke cigarettes after the war and, as the habit grew, the tobacco companies began to target women as a possible lucrative market.  Women were already smoking in increasing numbers in the privacy of their homes but there remained a general taboo against women smoking in public.  The war had already challenged the prevailing social mores with women working in factories and the emergence of feminist ideas.  In 1928 Bernays began to work for George Washington Hill, the head of the American Tobacco Company makers of the USA’s fastest growing brand, Lucky Strikes.  Hill decided that the fastest way to persuade women to buy cigarettes was by exploiting the current fashion for slimness and encouraging women to smoke instead of eating sweets. Hill coined the slogan ‘Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet’ and hired Bernays to lead the campaign.  As Tye has noted:-

‘It was a wise choice.  Bernays didn’t invent fashions like a svelte figure, but he was becoming the acknowledged master of accentuating such trends and capitalizing on them for his clients, a process he termed ‘’crystallizing public opinion’’.  And during his eight year association with the tobacco tycoon he would make clear his willingness to employ whatever antics or deceptions it took to do that crystallizing, including trying to discredit new research linking smoking to deadly diseases.’  (Tye, 2002)

Bernays set about launching the campaign by enlisting endorsements from various ‘experts’ including fashion photographers, artists, dancers and health professionals all willing to suggest that cigarettes were preferable to sweets and should form part of a ‘calorie controlled’ diet.  He also persuaded hotels and restaurants to add cigarettes to their menus among the desserts and the makers of kitchen cabinets to provide special spaces to hold cigarettes. Most famously he ‘took to the streets’ with the so-called ‘Torches of Freedom’ event staged at the 1929 New York Easter parade. Te torches of freedom were in fact cigarettes.  Combing Freudian ideas relating to ‘supressed feminine desires’and feminist notions of womens’ emancipation, Bernays could plausibly claim that women openly smoking on the streets of New York was striking a blow for freedom.  In fact Bernays hired the carefully selected women involved and ensured that when they lit their torches of freedom the cigarettes involved were Lucky Strikes.  As Tye has commented:-

‘Ten young women turned out, marching down Fifth Avenue with their lighted ‘’torches of freedom’’….During the following days women were reported to be taking to the streets, lighted cigarettes in hand, in Boston and Detroit, Wheeling and San Fransisco   and a few weeks later Broadway theatres created a stir by dmitting women to what had been men-only smoking rooms….The Torches of Freedom campaign remains a classic in the world of public relations, one still cited in classrooms and boardrooms as an example of ballyhoo at its most brilliant and, more important, of creative analysis of social symbols and how they can be manipulated,’  (Tye, 2002)

Concluding remarks

The development of the social media, the sophisticated deployment of false information and the rise of ‘populism’ are recent phenomena.  Standing behind them, however, are the insights and techniques developed in the last century by Edward Bernays.



Bernays, E.  Propaganda, Ig Publishing, 1928/2004

Tye, L.  The Father of Spin: Edward. L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations, Holt, 2002

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