Freud's Nephew and Public Relations

The Strange History of Edward Bernays

Posted Feb 12, 2010

In my most recent post, I argued that two institutions that today seem utterly unconnected-psychotherapy and advertising-in fact share some intriguing historical connections. And none of these connections is more intriguing than the life of the American who is often known as "the father of public relations," Edward Bernays. The place where it starts getting interesting is when you realize that Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud.

Bernays is known for inventing a number of the public relations and advertising techniques that revolutionized marketing in the early decades of the 20th century. For example, Bernays was a pioneer in creating what Daniel Boorstin would later call "pseudo-events:" staged happenings that were covered as news. One of his most famous stunts was to hire a number of young women to march in New York's Easter Parade in 1929 while smoking cigarettes-at that time public smoking by women was still widely regarded as taboo. He made sure photographers and reporters were on hand, and had encouraged the women to refer to the cigarettes as "torches of freedom." The women were thus depicted as fashionable rebels against the discrimination that forbade public smoking by women.

The event was front page news in papers all across the country on the following day, and in many cities women took to the streets with their cigarettes to show their support. What didn't come out until much later was the fact that Bernays had been under contract to the American Tobacco Company to expand the market for cigarettes among women.

In everything he did, Bernays began with the basic principles of the psychology of his time, and not only his uncle's. He felt that it was not reason but emotion and instinct that moved the common man, and throughout his long life he held onto the elitist view that those who understood this could and should control the masses. As he said in the first paragraph of his influential book Propaganda. "Those who manipulate [the habits and opinions of the masses]...constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country."

In saying that there is an important relationship between psychotherapy and such institutions as public relations and advertising I am, of course, neglecting one very important fact. This is that the goal of psychotherapies, very broadly, is not to control people but in some way to free them. Whereas the goal of advertising and public relations is to persuade people to behave in a particular way or--if you want to put it in the way Bernays would have--to control them.

Nevertheless, both endeavors strive to harness what we know about human mental processes, cognition and emotion, to change people's lives. And it is interesting and important to understand that this attempt to effectively manipulate human minds is one of the fundamental building blocks of our way of life.

To learn more, visit Peter G. Stromberg's website.  Photo taken in 1939, provided on Creative Commons by Cesar Blanco.