Edward Bernays invented ‘Public Relations’ in the 1920s, being the first person to take Freud’s ideas to manipulate the masses. He showed American corporations how they could make people want things they didn’t need by systematically linking mass-produced goods to their unconscious desires.
“If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without them knowing it.” –Edward Bernays, (Propaganda 1928, p.71)
Edward Bernays – also known as the “father of propaganda” – took Freud’s key thesis that individuals were driven by unconscious irrational forces and used it to develop marketing techniques which are now common place.
One example was Bernays campaign to convince women to smoke in the 1920s. Bernays helped the smoking industry overcome one of the biggest social taboos of the time: women smoking in public. Prior to the 1920s, smoking was largely a male pastime and women were only allowed to smoke in designated areas, or not at all. If caught violating this rule, women would have been arrested.
Bernays used psychoanalysis to associate the act of smoking with a sort of challenge to male sexual power. Bernays staged the 1929 Easter parade in New York City, showing models holding lit cigarettes and told the media to refer to the cigarettes in the press as “Torches of Freedom” – in a protest against male patriarchal society.
After the historical public event, women started lighting up more than ever before. It was through Bernays that women’s smoking habits started to become socially acceptable. Bernays created this event as news, which, of course, it wasn’t. Bernays convinced industries that the news, not advertising, was the best medium to carry their message to an unsuspecting public.
To better understand the current state of modern day media manipulation, we must first comprehend the role Edward Bernays played in learning how to control the masses.
The Century of the Self is an award-winning British television documentary series by Adam Curtis. It focuses on how the work of Sigmund Freud, Anna Freud, and Edward Bernays influenced the way corporations and governments have analyzed, dealt with, and controlled people. The Century of the Self asks deeper questions about the roots and methods of modern consumerism, representative democracy, commoditization and its implications. It also questions the modern way we see ourselves, the attitudes to fashion and superficiality. Sigmund Freud’s work provided useful tools for understanding the secret desires of the masses. Inadvertently, his work served as the precursor to a world full of political spin doctors, marketing moguls, and society’s belief that the pursuit of satisfaction and happiness is our ultimate goal. The Century of the Self tells the untold story of the growth of the mass-consumer society in Britain and the United States – and details how the all-consuming Self was created, by whom, and in whose interests?
Where once the political process was about engaging people’s rational, conscious minds, as well as facilitating their needs as a society, the documentary shows how by employing the tactics of psychoanalysis, politicians appeal to irrational, primitive impulses that have little apparent bearing on issues outside of the narrow self-interest of a consumer population.
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.” –Edward Bernays, (Propaganda 1928, p.37)
“A true zombie is nothing more than an unconscious being apathetically and lifelessly lumbering across the planet buying and consuming everything in its path, unsatisfied, unfulfilled, anxious and unstill.” -Judith Froemming
- Adams, Tim (10 March, 2002), ‘How Freud got under our skin’, in The Observer’.
- BBC Press Office (28 February, 2002), ‘The Rise of the All-Consuming Self and the Influence of the Freud Dynasty’
- Bernays, Edward, (1928), ‘Propaganda’, (Routledge).
- Curtis, Adam (Producer and Director), ‘The Century of the Self’(2002), British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), UK.
To learn more on this, these books are a good starting point:
- The Freud Reader
- The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud (Psychopathology of Everyday Life, the Interpretation of Dreams, and Three Contributions To the Theory of Sex)
- PR! – A Social History of Spin
- Propaganda (Please note, the documentary The Century of the Self was inspired and informed by this book.)
- The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and The Birth of Public Relations
- Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media