How Eddie Bernays got you to buy books, wear hairnets, and eat bacon for breakfast.
could argue that the birth of modern public relations is really the
story of bacon and eggs. Prior to the 1920s, breakfast was toast and a
cup of coffee. When a company called Beech-Nut Packing wanted to boost
its bacon sales, they called PR man Edwards Bernays.
didn't place ads in magazines or post billboards with catchy slogans.
Instead, he commissioned a research study on the eating habits of
Americans. A doctor concluded that, because the body loses energy during
the night, a robust breakfast is healthier than a light one. Bernays
saw to it that thousands of physicians got the report, along with a
publicity packet touting bacon and eggs as a hearty way to start the
day. Pretty soon, doctors were recommending it to their patients, and
the all-American breakfast was born.
Syphilis and Propaganda
Bernays was born in Vienna to Jewish parents and immigrated to the
United States with his family when he was an infant. The elder Bernays
had been a wealthy farmer, and he hoped his son would follow in his
footsteps. So, he enrolled young Eddie in Cornell's esteemed College of
Agriculture. Eddie complied, albeit unwillingly. A child of the
Manhattan brownstone, he'd grown accustomed to the bustling pace of the
big city. Upon receiving his degree in 1912, the only thing Eddie seemed
certain of was that farm life was not for him. And that's when fate
One day while boarding the Ninth Avenue trolley on
Manhattan, Eddie crossed paths with an old friend named Fred Robinson.
Robinson offered Bernays a job managing two monthly journals, the Medical Review of Reviews and the Dietetic and Hygienic Gazette.
Eddie accepted, although he knew little about publishing or medicine.
Fortunately, none of that mattered a few months later, when he used the
journals to publish a review of the play Damaged Goods. That may not sound like a big deal, but Damaged Goods
was about a man who had syphilis. Sex was such a taboo subject at the
time that New York censors had previously shut down George Bernard
Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession because it dealt with
prostitution. Regardless, Eddie published a rave review and even offered
to help produce the show. But the real trick was convincing censors to
look the other way.
Employing a technique
that would later become one of his trademarks, Eddie created a "third
party authority" called the Sociological Fund Committee. It was a fake
organization tailor-made to legitimize the play as a crusade against the
prevailing attitude of "sex-pruriency." After lobbying prominent
society figures, Eddie had supporters like John D. Rockefeller and
Franklin Roosevelt on his side. Although critics lampooned the play,
Bernays made syphilis a cause célèbre, and turned the production into a huge financial success.
Id, Ego, and Super-Uncle
future looked bright for Bernays the Producer, but then fate stepped in
again with the outbreak of World War I. Eddie tried to enlist, but was
turned away due to flat feet and poor vision. Undeterred, he set his
sights on the Committee on Public Information -the propaganda machine
responsible for Uncle Sam's "I Want You" recruitment poster. There, as
co-head of the Latin American section, Bernays honed his manipulative
Although the agency's propaganda helped
America win the war, its methods were sharply criticized by members of
Congress, who suspected the CPI of censoring the media. The organization
was dismantled, the profession of public relations came under heavy
scrutiny, and Bernays was left severely disillusioned.
came in the form of Sigmund Freud, Bernays' famous uncle. In 1919,
Eddie translated a series of Freud's lectured into English, and the work
brought the psychiatrist widespread attention in America. Despite being
derided by some critics as a "professional nephew," Eddie largely
benefitted from having a famous uncle. Freud's theories on human
behavior ignited a new fire in Bernays. He realized that if propaganda
could be used to manipulate Americans during times of war, it could also
be used in times of peace to influence trends, habits, and -most
importantly- consumer spending.
Bookshelves, Hairnets, and Children Who Love to Wash Their Hands
by Freud's success, Bernays embarked upon a series of campaigns that
secured him as the master of marketing. When a group of major book
publishers asked him to bolster sales, he proclaimed, "Where there are
bookshelves, there will be books." Bernays then convinced architects,
construction companies, and interior designers to install bookshelves in
new homes. The scheme paid off, and the book business skyrocketed.
another campaign, Bernays helped a company named Venida salvage lagging
hairnet sales. Short hairstyles were in, thanks to dancehall icon Irene
Castle. And without long locks, women had no need for hairnets. Bernays
created a new market, repurposing the beauty accessory as safety gear.
He asked experts to issue reports explaining the hazards of hair falling
into food or getting caught in machinery. Soon, Venida hairnets became
essential for all restaurant and factory workers.
didn't stop there, either. When client Proctor & Gamble approached
Bernays in the 1920s to help make its soap more appealing to children,
Eddie promised that "Children, the enemies of soap, would be conditioned
to enjoy using Ivory." And just like Pavlov and his dogs, Eddie trained
America's youth to associate soap with fun. He created the National
Soap Sculpture Contest, complete with heavily publicized cash prizes. A
sweeping success, it became an annual tradition that kept children
whittling away at Ivory for the next 38 years.
Torches of Freedom
all of Bernays' campaigns were so wholesome. One of his most
well-known, if not controversial, projects was for Lucky Strike
cigarettes. In the late 1920s, American Tobacco Company chairman George
Washington Hill charged Bernays' PR firm with acquiring a new market for
its cigarettes -women. In Eddie's words, "Hill become obsessed with the
prospect of winning over the largest potential female market for
Luckies. 'If I can crack that market.' he said to me one day, "it will
be like opening a new goldmine right in our front yard.'"
campaign, Bernays enlisted the help of his wife, fellow marketing
genius Doris Fleischman. First, they worked to brand cigarettes as an
alternative to candy. When that didn't work, they tried to convince
women that green -the official color of Luckies- was the new black. With
assistance from editors at Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, green began to
dominate the fashion world. The duo even orchestrated a "Green Ball" in
New York, featuring some of the city's most prominent socialites.
Although Lucky Strikes' sales climbed, it wasn't enough. Bernays and
Fleischman realized that true success would require overcoming a major
taboo. In society's eyes, women still weren't allowed to smoke in
public. Armed with the knowledge that many women smoked in private, they
staged an event that captivated the nation.
On Easter Sunday in
1929, a group of ten women strolled down Fifth Avenue in full view of
church-going families (as well as conveniently-placed photographers)
flaunting lit cigarettes, which they called their "Torches of Freedom."
The news story caught fire, and controversy raged between women's groups
on both sides of the issue. Around the nation, copycat "Torches of
Freedom" sparked up, and millions of dollars poured into the coffers of
Smoke and Mirrors
the tobacco campaign backfired on Bernays. His wife Doris joined the
legions of female smokers and became a lifelong tobacco user, despite
protests from Eddie and their children.
Overcome with guilt,
Bernays launched a radical plan in 1964 to eradicate smoking from
society. Wielding medical research on the harmful effects of tobacco, he
campaigned to convince America that smoking was an "antisocial action
which no self-respecting person carries on in the presence of others."
His efforts led to a ban on cigarette advertising from radio and
television, which dealt a major blow to companies he once served.
felt guilty about other things, too. In the early 1950s, the United
Fruit Company enlisted his help in Guatemala. The company was trying to
hold onto the land leased to them by the government -land that national
officials wanted to reclaim for the Guatemalan people. Bernays responded
by waging a propaganda war that made president Jacobo Arbenz out to be a
Communist. The claim was categorically untrue, but McCarthy-era
politicos seized the rhetoric and rallied for war against the tiny
nation. Bernays enlisted the CIA's help and orchestrated an elaborate
liberation campaign to replace the democratically-elected president with
a United Fruit Company puppet. The resulting Banana Republic lasted for
Bernays must have felt his greatest moment of
self-doubt in 1933 when foreign correspondent Karl von Weigand contacted
him upon his return from Nazi Germany. During an interview with Joseph
Goebbels, Hitler's devoted friend and minister of propaganda, von
Weigand had noticed a familiar book sitting prominently on Goebbels'
desk; it was Bernays' seminal work Crystallizing Public Opinion. Ironically, Eddie was Jewish.
The Sultan of Spin
formally retired in the early 1960s, but he kept working as a
consultant until he was 100 years old. In 1990, he was voted to LIFE
magazine's list of the 100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century.
Bernays died on March 9, 1995 in Cambridge, Mass. at the age of 103.
his long and storied career, it's estimated that Bernays had 435
clients, not to mention countless disciples. His exhaustive list of
clients included General Motors, the NAACP, the Multiple Sclerosis
Society, and CBS, as well as famed individuals like playwright Eugene
O'Neill, painter Georgia O'Keefe, and presidents Calvin Coolidge and
Despite his controversial campaigns, Bernays
always demanded that PR professional adhere to a strict moral code. He
believed the field should be licensed, like that of lawyers or doctors,
so that only qualified professionals could practice. After all, he -more
than anyone- understood that with the power of public persuasion came