Edward Bernays

Edward Bernays (Lucian Freud’s nephew) spent his early career as an editor and press agent before being hired by the Committee on Public Information (CPI) to build domestic and foreign support for World War I. He quickly realised that “what could be done for a nation at war could be done for organizations and people in a nation at peace” (Bernays, 1994) …and duly opened a ‘public relations’ business in New York.

The word ‘propaganda’ had too many negative connotations around wartime so he decided to rebrand his methods as ‘public relations’, a far more agreeable turn of phrase for a new business in America. He made no secret of buying into his uncle’s theory that the masses were inherently irrational and subject to herd instinct and that skilled practitioners could and should use crowd psychology and psychoanalysis to control them in desirable ways (Bernays, 1923/28). Whilst on the subject of connotations, the use of words here in a seemingly clinical sentence are very telling and remind me of a recent political debate I overheard on BBC Radio 5 about Brexit whereby the Conservative representative repeatedly referred to ‘Leave’ campaigners as ‘Brexiteers’ and those wishing to ‘Remain’ as ‘Europhiles’.

Continuing the moral ambiguity, from 1919-63 Bernays becomes the go-to man for corporate giants and political campaigns in the search for broader popularity and larger profits. There is no doubting his talents in building new bespoke strategies for his clients and leaving absolutely nothing to chance. Publicity stunts, product placement, focus groups, tailored ad campaigns, endorsements and preying on people’s hopes and fears all contribute to the blueprint for selling things to people to this day. Most, if not all were pioneered by Edward Bernays.

When it was a taboo for women to smoke in public, the American Tobacco Company realized it could be making considerably more money if it wasn’t. Bernays was hired and staged a scene whereby a group of women would join the New York Easter Day parade and all light up Lucky Strike cigarettes dramatically in front of waiting photographers. He then informed the press that these suffragettes and feminists had called them “Torches of Freedom” thus giving them a phrase to print, containing all the emotions and symbolism of equality, liberty and freedom from male oppression. The rest is history.



He convinced the public that water fluoridation was good for you, by using the American Dental Association in a campaign. That bacon and eggs was the all-American breakfast. Added a symbolic egg to the list of necessary ingredients for Betty Crocker cake mixes so as to remove the guilt from housewives that they were no longer active participants in the making of a cake. Contributed to the overthrowing of the president of Guatemala with the United Fruit Company and US Government in convincing people he was communist. Hairnets, soap, disposable cups, making particular politicians look cooler by asking specific celebrities to be seen with them. The list goes on and on, with results on sale to highest bidders.

He realised that if you want to keep selling large volumes of products you need to change society from a ‘needs’ to a ‘wants’ culture. What doesn’t feel quite right here is that convincing people of something purely for profit feels like deception, like reckless cheating, and we know all too well how that ends up; with a bubble and a crash like in 2008. It also feels, that now in 2017, we’ve reached saturation point on the amount of manufactured stuff everywhere (especially poor quality or disposable stuff), so much so that maybe it’s time to start moving back into more of a ‘needs’ culture or look to achieve some kind of balance.



Putting these objections aside for a moment, what have Bernays’ tactics revealed, in hindsight, from a research point of view? That real long-lasting societal change was achieved. We can see that making people emotionally aware of something calls them to action. People pay attention to things placed in their peripheral vision. The celebration of the worth of the individual. That having no restrictions on the medium for an output and building a bespoke strategy achieves breakthroughs. Mass shifts of opinion. These are all things that research looks to achieve. So what does the stock knowledge of humans, culture and society begin to look like if these tools are appropriated and repurposed by the knowledge economy, whose aim would be to inform, inspire and innovate rather than just sell?


Century of the Self (2002) Directed by Adam Curtis [TV mini-series]. UK: BBC, RDF Media

Bernays, E. (1923) Crystallizing Public Opinion. Boni and Liveright: New York

Bernays, E. (1928) Propaganda. Horace Liveright: New York

‘Edward Bernays’’ (2017) Wikipedia. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Bernays (Accessed: 9 Oct 2017)

The Big Short (2015) Directed by Adam McKay [Film]. Paramount Pictures

United Nations (2017) Plastic Ocean. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ju_2NuK5O-E (Accessed: 11 Oct 2017)