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Edward Bernays: How to Sell Yourself Something You Don’t Need

An e-mail came to my mailbox entitled “exciting article about propaganda, consumer culture and manipulation.” It was from my boss, asking me to do research on a certain Edward Bernays for our blog. I didn’t even open two tabs on this guy before thinking “my boss went crazy. He is asking me to expose the most sinister side of our industry. “

However, on digging deeper, I understood that Bernays’ marketing is almost nothing like what we do on a daily basis at the agency. This in part has to do with the differences between traditional marketing and digital marketing, a topic for another article. With my conscience appeased, I became fascinated and horrified in equal parts by the ingenuity of Edward Bernays. I’ll tell you what I found.

Men we’ve never heard of

Marketing is the son of psychology. Or at least his nephew. Sure enough, that was Sigmund Freud’s Edward Barnays. While Bernays’s name doesn’t resonate as much as his uncle’s, the impact it had on society was just as poignant. Edward Bernays, father of public relations, was responsible for taking Freud’s theories on behavior and the human mind to help sell more products. Thus, the way of doing marketing changed forever.

Edward Bernays Marketing

Before Bernays, marketing was largely based on showing the practical virtues of a product. He inaugurated the notion that to sell anything (from a brand to a public figure), it was best to link it to people’s deepest desires and fears. Bernays wrote “People are seldom aware of the real reasons for their behavior (…) We are governed, our minds are shaped, our tastes shaped, our ideas suggested: largely by men we have never heard of.”

edward bernays
Marketing Strategies of Edward Bernays, Father of Public Relations

Discourse on the method

When I told my friends about one of Bernays’ campaigns, they found it implausible. They found it hard to believe that such small seismic movements in culture could generate such a tsunami of consumption. This is because Bernays understood that there was a link between culture and consumption that could not be wasted. His ways were indirect and elusive, so that the public received propaganda messages without suspecting it. For example, Bernays was a precursor to indirect advertising in movies: During his long and famous campaign for Lucky Strike, he got movie stars to smoke in movies repeatedly.

Edward Bernays father of public relations

His handling of public opinion was such that he even managed to impose it as a discipline. In 1928 he wrote the book Propaganda , where he defined the limits of his specialty. After the war, the term “propaganda” acquired a negative connotation as it was used by the Nazis as a political tool. Then Bernays applied the golden rule of public relations, which was portrayed in the series about publicists, Mad Men: “If you don’t like what is being said, change the conversation.” Edward Bernays marketing changed the name “propaganda” to “public relations” and the rest is history. What follows is a brief tour of some of the most important campaigns of this man behind the scenes.

Lucky strikes back

During the 1920s the American Tobacco Corporation sought to reach a larger audience of smokers. George Washigton Hill, its president, was at the time in charge of the Lucky Strike brand. Hill set out to appeal to a hitherto unexplored demographic: women. “We are losing half of our market because men have invoked a taboo on women who smoke in public,” she argued.

Smoke the shadow

In 1929, Washington Hill hired Edward Bernays marketing  to convince women to smoke cigarettes. Bernays went to work with his uncle’s theories in mind. Since smoking was considered an appetite suppressant, and thinness was all the rage, Bernays designed a campaign that appealed to women’s unconscious fear of gaining weight. In the ads, slim, pretty women were haunted by the shadow of an obese future version. The tagline read: “When tempted, grab a Lucky [instead of a candy]. Avoid the shadow of the future ”.

edward bernays

Torches of freedom

Edward Bernays’ audacious Marketing CampaignWas beyond. To effectively break the taboo of smoking in public, Bernays decided to inquire about what cigarettes meant to women. After consulting a local psychoanalytic reference, he came to the conclusion that cigarettes were a symbol of masculine power (according to the psychoanalyst he consulted, they literally represented “the phallus”) and that he could then get women to smoke cigarettes if he did. posed as a way to challenge male power. To this end, Bernays organized a rally at the 1929 Easter parade, where famous women held their “torches of freedom” – Lucky Strike cigarettes. By this action, the brand became the symbol of gender equality in the United States during those years.

torches of freedom

About 1500 green cards

In the 1930s a new problem arose that required Bernays’ advice. Washington Hill noted that while the women were smoking more cigarettes, for some reason they weren’t buying Lucky Strikes. An investigation from 1934 yielded a curious answer to this riddle: the moss green color of the package was “difficult to match.” Changing the color of the package was not an option since Washington Hill had spent a lot of money on those colors. Bernays, father of public relations, applied his ingenuity and convinced fashion designers to incorporate color into their new seasonal designs. Hosted a “Green Gala” at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel for some of society’s leading trendsetters and sent 1,500 letters on green letterhead to interior decorators, home furnishings buyers and art groups in the city. industry. The campaign was a success.

lucky strike green

Breakfast for champions

We all hear the saying “breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” But not many know that the man behind that “wisdom” is, again, Bernays! It all came about because in the 1920s The Beech-Nut Packing Company was struggling to sell one of its most important meat products: bacon. Rather than simply lowering the price, Bernays posed a deeper question: who tells the public what to eat?

Until then, Americans ate a light breakfast of coffee, juice, and maybe toast. Bernays got 5,000 doctors to sign a statement agreeing that a large, high-protein breakfast (for example, bacon and eggs) was healthier than a light one. The petition was published in the newspapers and had a huge impact on American society: from then on a breakfast that did not include bacon and eggs was considered “poor.” Bacon sales skyrocketed and Bernays did the job: he created a need that didn’t previously exist. And, without looking for it, he created the famous American breakfast.

real american breakfast

The guilt egg

World War II saw the rise of instant preparations. As people had less time to cook, the industry began to design dry ingredient formulas that only required water to make. Instant cake mixes were pioneers in this area. Despite being so convenient, they weren’t selling. Disappointed and confused by the poor sales, Betty Crocker brand executives turned to Edward Bernays Marketing for help .

Again, Bernays turned to psychology to solve this problem. After conducting a focus group for housewives, she concluded that they felt unconscious guilt for using a product that required so little effort. The answer: give them a greater sense of participation by requiring them to add an egg to the mix. Sales skyrocketed when the symbolic egg took its toll on the collective unconscious and removed the barrier of guilt.

betty crocker cake mix

Bernays’ legacy

More than two decades after his death, the impact of Edward Bernays Marketing has as a great legacy the culture of consumption: he understood that any object can be transformed into a symbol and that studying the cultural implications of these symbols allowed him to exercise manipulation of people on a large scale. He called this technique “consent engineering.” Despite its controversial status, it is still used by brands, companies, public figures and politicians around the world to achieve their commercial or propaganda goals.

Indeed, what this man achieved is impressive: it terrifies and amazes because it reveals very complex aspects of human nature. Aspects that my boss and I felt a little uncomfortable discussing on Skype on a Wednesday morning. So we are going to leave the moral judgment up to him, which, anyway, was surely already influenced by some Bernays hanging around.

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