The Invisible Government: Edward Bernays, Public Relations and Propaganda

Written by Sophie Hylands. Edited by Katie Yates

In his 1928 book, Propaganda, Edward Bernays wrote of secret and ubiquitous persuasive powers at work in society: ‘We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of’.  While they may sound like something from an Orwellian dystopia, for Bernays these are words of approval and not warning.  Bernays in fact, prided himself on being part of what he saw as an ‘invisible government’, the pioneers of public relations who made the manipulation of public opinion their life’s work.

Bernays was born in Vienna in 1891, the son of Sigmund Freud’s sister Anna and Ely Bernays, brother of Freud’s wife Martha, and later moved to America with his family when he was just one year old. After graduating from Cornell University in 1912 he initially worked as a journalist and then a theatrical press agent, representing high profile clients including Italian tenor Enrico Caruso and ballet dancer Vaslav Najinsky.  Yet, despite his success in this area, Bernays interest in the potential of publicity went far beyond the relatively trivial world of entertainment, which led him to accept a position on the US government’s Committee on Public Information during World War I.

The wartime committee’s goal was to sway public opinion in favour of America joining the war, alongside the promotion of President Woodrow Wilson’s vision of democracy as a harmonising political force across Europe. The success of the CPI’s work led Bernays to consider how ‘propaganda’ could be employed in peacetime as well as war and in 1919 he established himself as a ‘Consul on Public Relations’, who advised clients on their dealings with the public and made sure that they were presented as favourably as possible.

Throughout his career, Bernays promoted the work of his uncle, Sigmund Freud, overseeing the translation and publication of his books in America and he frequently applied his uncle’s theories on the unconscious to his work in public relations, developing the view that the average consumer bought things not just because they were useful but because ‘he unconsciously come[s] to see in it a symbol of something else, the desire for which he is ashamed to admit to himself’.

A 1936 advertising photo for Lucky Strike Cigarettes, Girl In Red

A similar manipulation of symbols was seen clearly in one of Bernays’ earliest PR stunts. Employed by the American Tobacco Company to increase their market share amongst women, Bernays set about to break the taboo on women smoking in public. In order to do this, Bernays consulted the psychoanalyst AA Brill who postulated that as cigarettes were invariably associated with men, for women they could represent freedom and sexual liberation. With this in mind, Bernays hired a number of fashionable debutantes to gather at the 1929 New York Easter Parade proudly smoking Lucky Strike cigarettes, which they called their ‘torches of freedom’.

Bernays was, of course, quick to let the press know about this supposedly spontaneous show of female emancipation and the story appeared in newspapers across America, including the New York Times which wrote that ‘a group of young women who said they were smashing a tradition and not favoring any particular brand, strolled along the lane between the tiered skyscrapers and puffed cigarettes’. While it is hard to quantify just how successful Bernays’ stunt really was, beyond the column inches it generated, the late 1920s did see a marked rise in the number of American women taking up smoking. So although the direct influence of Bernay’s public relations work is unclear, it undoubtedly tapped into the spirit of the times, taking the desire for freedom and individuality that developed after the First World War and suggesting ways this could be realised through the buying of certain products – leading the way for the “lifestyle” consumerism we see everywhere today.

Bernays was one of the first to recognise the importance of appealing to the wants, rather than simply the needs of the consumer, so instead of being told how useful a specific product was, the product was, in fact, presented as fulfilling the customer’s unconscious desires. Significantly, Bernays felt that the best way to convey this was through newspapers, rather than advertising, as the public considered news articles to be inherently more trustworthy than adverts. Like many PR gurus who followed him, he believed that news could (and should) be created in order to present the public with a version of events that would speak to their desires and ultimately guide their choices. In Bernays’ words the PR man is a ‘creator of circumstance’.

As well as Freud, Bernays was also strongly influenced by the theories of Wilfred Trotter and Gustave Le Bon on the subject of group psychology and the crowd- both of whom presented groups as impulsive and irrational agents. For Bernays, the public, like the crowd that quickly descends into a mob mentality, could not be trusted to make reasoned decisions and power needed to rest with invisible ‘wire pullers’ who could direct people to the “right” decision. This mentality applied as much to politics as it did to products, with his book Propaganda opening with the statement that the ‘manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society’.

Despite his book Crystallizing Public Opinion being cited by German Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels as a vital influence on his own campaign to win popular support for the undemocratic Nazi regime, Bernays was unafraid to apply public relations to politics. During the time that Bernays was employed by the American company United Fruit, he was charged with running a campaign against the Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz in the American media and he persuaded the press to run stories depicting Árbenz as serious communist threat to the USA. Since this was played out in the aftermath of the compulsory purchase and redistribution of land United Fruit owned in Guatemala, by the democratically elected government, Bernays involvement can be considered to be somewhat controversial. The ultimate aim of Bernays involvement and United Fruit’s anti-communist campaign was to influence President Eisenhower to intervene in Guatemala- something which has been seen as a contributing factor in the CIA-backed coup in the country in 1954, which overthrew the Árbenz administration.

Bernays’ faith in what he termed the ‘engineering of consent’ to bring about events seen as necessary for the public good remained with him throughout his long life, despite him facing ever increasing criticism from those who saw him as a ‘young Machiavelli’ and who viewed his actions as a subversion of true democratic values. Bernays died in 1995 at the age of 103 unrepentant about the power and necessity of public relations in modern society, having lived to see the profession he helped to create flourish and his theories taken up by both politicians and corporations for whom controlling public opinion has come to be seen as the ultimate goal.