Edward Bernays, Father of Public Relations and Propaganda

Nephew of Freud Made a Profession Out of Shaping Public Opinion

Photograph of public relations pioneer Edward Bernays
Edward Bernays.

Bettmann / Getty Images 

Edward Bernays was an American business consultant who is widely regarded as having created the modern profession of public relations with his groundbreaking campaigns of the 1920s. Bernays attained clients among major corporations and became known for boosting their business by causing changes in public opinion.

Advertising was already commonplace by the early 20th century. But what Bernays did with his campaigns was significantly different, as he didn't openly seek to promote a particular product the way a typical ad campaign would. Instead, when hired by a company, Bernays would set out to change the opinions of the general public, creating demand which would indirectly boost the fortunes of a particular product.

Fast Facts: Edward Bernays

  • Born: November 22, 1891 in Vienna Austria
  • Died: March 9, 1995 in Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • Parents: Ely Bernays and Anna Freud
  • Spouse: Doris Fleishman (married 1922)
  • Education: Cornell University
  • Notable Published Works: Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923), Propaganda (1928), Public Relations (1945), The Engineering of Consent (1955)
  • Famous Quote: "Whatever of social importance is done today, whether in politics, finance, manufacture, agriculture, charity, education, or other fields, must be done with the help of propaganda." (from his 1928 book Propaganda)

Some of Bernays' public relations campaigns failed, but some were so successful that he was able to create a thriving business. And, making no secret of his family relationship to Sigmund Freud—he was the nephew of the pioneering psychoanalyst—his work had the veneer of scientific respectability.

Bernays was often portrayed as the father of propaganda, a title he did not mind. He maintained that propaganda was a laudable and necessary component of democratic government.

Early Life

Edward L. Bernays was born on November 22, 1891, in Vienna, Austria. His family emigrated to the United States a year later, and his father became a successful grain merchant on the New York commodity exchanges.

His mother, Anna Freud, was the younger sister of Sigmund Freud. Bernays did not grow up in contact with Freud directly, though as a young man he did visit him. It's unclear how much Freud influenced his work in the publicity business, but Bernays was never shy about the connection and it no doubt helped him attract clients.

After growing up in Manhattan, Bernays attended Cornell University. It was his father's idea, as he believed his son would also enter the grain business and a degree from Cornell's prestigious agriculture program would be helpful.

Bernays was an outsider at Cornell, which was largely attended by the sons of farming families. Unhappy with the career path chosen for him, he graduated from Cornell intent on becoming a journalist. Back in Manhattan, he became the editor of a medical journal.

Early Career

His position at the Medical Review of Reviews led to his first foray into public relations. He heard that an actor wanted to produce a play that was controversial, as it dealt with the subject of venereal disease. Bernays offered to help and essentially turned the play into a cause, and a success, by creating what he called the "Sociological Fund Committee," which enlisted notable citizens to praise the play. After that first experience, Bernays began working as a press agent and built a thriving business.

During World War I he was rejected for military service due to his poor vision, but he offered his public relations services to the U.S. government. When he joined the government's Committee of Public Information, he enlisted American companies doing business overseas to distribute literature about America's reasons for entering the war.

After the end of the war, Bernays traveled to Paris as part of a government public relations team at the Paris Peace Conference. The trip went badly for Bernays, who found himself in conflict with other officials. Despite that, he came away having learned a valuable lesson, which was that wartime work changing public opinion on a grand scale could have civilian applications.

Noteworthy Campaigns

Following the war, Bernays continued in the public relations business, seeking out major clients. An early triumph was a project for President Calvin Coolidge, who projected a stern and humorless image. Bernays arranged for performers, including Al Jolson, to visit Coolidge at the White House. Coolidge was portrayed in the press as having fun, and weeks later he won the election of 1924. Bernays, of course, took credit for changing the public's perception of Coolidge.

One of the most famous Bernays campaigns was while working for the American Tobacco Company in the late 1920s. Smoking had caught on among American women in the years following World War I, but the habit carried a stigma and only a fraction of Americans found it acceptable for women to smoke, especially in public.

Bernays began by spreading the idea, through various means, that smoking was an alternative to candy and desserts and that tobacco helped people lose weight. He followed that up in 1929 with something more audacious: spreading the idea that cigarettes meant freedom. Bernays had gotten the idea from consulting with a New York psychoanalyst who happened to be a disciple of his uncle, Dr. Freud.

Bernays was informed that women of the late 1920s were seeking freedom, and smoking represented that freedom. To find a way to convey that concept to the public, Bernays hit upon the stunt of having young women smoke cigarettes while strolling in the annual Easter Sunday parade on Fifth Avenue in New York City.

Photo of smokers on Fifth Avenue
Scene at 1929 "Freedom Torches" event arranged by Edward Bernays.  Getty Images

The event was carefully organized and essentially scripted. Debutantes were recruited to be the smokers, and they were carefully positioned near particular landmarks, such as St. Patrick's Cathedral. Bernays even arranged for a photographer to shoot images just in case any newspaper photographers missed the shot.

The next day, the New York Times published a story on the annual Easter celebrations and a sub-headline on page one read: "Group of Girls Puff at Cigarettes as a Gesture of Freedom." The article noted "about a dozen young women" strolled back and forth near St. Patrick's Cathedral, "ostentatiously smoking cigarettes." When interviewed, the women said the cigarettes were "torches of freedom" that were "lighting the way to the day when women would smoke on the street as casually as men."

The tobacco company was happy with the results, as sales to women accelerated.

A wildly successful campaign was devised by Bernays for a longtime client, Procter & Gamble for its Ivory Soap brand. Bernays devised a way of making children like soap by initiating soap carving contests. Children (and adults, too) were encouraged to whittle bars of Ivory and the contests became a national fad. A newspaper article in 1929 about the company's fifth annual soap sculpture contest mentioned that $1,675 in prize money was being awarded, and many contestants were adults and even professional artists. The contests continued for decades (and instructions for soap sculpture are still part of Procter & Gamble promotions).

Influential Author

Bernays had started in public relations as a press agent for various performers, but by the 1920s he saw himself as a strategist who was elevating the entire business of public relations into a profession. He preached his theories on shaping public opinion at university lectures and also published books, including Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923) and Propaganda (1928). He later wrote memoirs of his career.

His books were influential, and generations of public relations professionals have referred to them. Bernays, however, came in for criticism. He was denounced by the magazine Editor and Publisher as "the young Machiavelli of our time," and he was often criticized for operating in deceptive ways.

Legacy

Bernays has been widely regarded as a pioneer in the field of public relations, and many of his techniques have become commonplace. For instance, the Bernays practice of forming interest groups to advocate for something is reflected daily in the commentators on cable television who represent interest groups and think tanks that seem to exist to confer respectability.

Often speaking out in retirement, Bernays, who lived to the age of 103 and died in 1995, was often critical of those who seemed to be his heirs. He told the New York Times, in an interview conducted in honor of his 100th birthday, that "any dope, any nitwit, any idiot, can call him or herself a public relations practitioner." However, he said he would be happy to be called "the father of public relations when the field is taken seriously, like law or architecture."

Sources:

  • "Edward L. Bernays." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 2, Gale, 2004, pp. 211-212. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • "Bernays, Edward L." The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, edited by Kenneth T. Jackson, et al., vol. 4: 1994-1996, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2001, pp. 32-34. Gale Virtual Reference Library.