America! Meet Your Puppet Master

How Eddie Bernays got you to buy books, wear hairnets, and eat bacon for breakfast.

One could argue that the birth of modern public relations is really the story of bacon and eggs. Prior to the 1920s, breakfast was toast and a cup of coffee. When a company called Beech-Nut Packing wanted to boost its bacon sales, they called PR man Edwards Bernays.

Bernays didn't place ads in magazines or post billboards with catchy slogans. Instead, he commissioned a research study on the eating habits of Americans. A doctor concluded that, because the body loses energy during the night, a robust breakfast is healthier than a light one. Bernays saw to it that thousands of physicians got the report, along with a publicity packet touting bacon and eggs as a hearty way to start the day. Pretty soon, doctors were recommending it to their patients, and the all-American breakfast was born.

Syphilis and Propaganda

Edwards Bernays was born in Vienna to Jewish parents and immigrated to the United States with his family when he was an infant. The elder Bernays had been a wealthy farmer, and he hoped his son would follow in his footsteps. So, he enrolled young Eddie in Cornell's esteemed College of Agriculture. Eddie complied, albeit unwillingly. A child of the Manhattan brownstone, he'd grown accustomed to the bustling pace of the big city. Upon receiving his degree in 1912, the only thing Eddie seemed certain of was that farm life was not for him. And that's when fate intervened.

One day while boarding the Ninth Avenue trolley on Manhattan, Eddie crossed paths with an old friend named Fred Robinson. Robinson offered Bernays a job managing two monthly journals, the Medical Review of Reviews and the Dietetic and Hygienic Gazette. Eddie accepted, although he knew little about publishing or medicine. Fortunately, none of that mattered a few months later, when he used the journals to publish a review of the play Damaged Goods. That may not sound like a big deal, but Damaged Goods was about a man who had syphilis. Sex was such a taboo subject at the time that New York censors had previously shut down George Bernard Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession because it dealt with prostitution. Regardless, Eddie published a rave review and even offered to help produce the show. But the real trick was convincing censors to look the other way.

Employing a technique that would later become one of his trademarks, Eddie created a "third party authority" called the Sociological Fund Committee. It was a fake organization tailor-made to legitimize the play as a crusade against the prevailing attitude of "sex-pruriency." After lobbying prominent society figures, Eddie had supporters like John D. Rockefeller and Franklin Roosevelt on his side. Although critics lampooned the play, Bernays made syphilis a cause célèbre, and turned the production into a huge financial success.

Id, Ego, and Super-Uncle

The future looked bright for Bernays the Producer, but then fate stepped in again with the outbreak of World War I. Eddie tried to enlist, but was turned away due to flat feet and poor vision. Undeterred, he set his sights on the Committee on Public Information -the propaganda machine responsible for Uncle Sam's "I Want You" recruitment poster. There, as co-head of  the Latin American section, Bernays honed his manipulative propaganda skills.

Although the agency's propaganda helped America win the war, its methods were sharply criticized by members of Congress, who suspected the CPI of censoring the media. The organization was dismantled, the profession of public relations came under heavy scrutiny, and Bernays was left severely disillusioned.

Salvation came in the form of Sigmund Freud, Bernays' famous uncle. In 1919, Eddie translated a series of Freud's lectured into English, and the work brought the psychiatrist widespread attention in America. Despite being derided by some critics as a "professional nephew," Eddie largely benefitted from having a famous uncle. Freud's theories on human behavior ignited a new fire in Bernays. He realized that if propaganda could be used to manipulate Americans during times of war, it could also be used in times of peace to influence trends, habits, and -most importantly- consumer spending.

Bookshelves, Hairnets, and Children Who Love to Wash Their Hands

Buoyed by Freud's success, Bernays embarked upon a series of campaigns that secured him as the master of marketing. When a group of major book publishers asked him to bolster sales, he proclaimed, "Where there are bookshelves, there will be books." Bernays then convinced architects, construction companies, and interior designers to install bookshelves in new homes. The scheme paid off, and the book business skyrocketed.

In another campaign, Bernays helped a company named Venida salvage lagging hairnet sales. Short hairstyles were in, thanks to dancehall icon Irene Castle. And without long locks, women had no need for hairnets. Bernays created a new market, repurposing the beauty accessory as safety gear. He asked experts to issue reports explaining the hazards of hair falling into food or getting caught in machinery. Soon, Venida hairnets became essential for all restaurant and factory workers.

His genius didn't stop there, either. When client Proctor & Gamble approached Bernays in the 1920s to help make its soap more appealing to children, Eddie promised that "Children, the enemies of soap, would be conditioned to enjoy using Ivory." And just like Pavlov and his dogs, Eddie trained America's youth to associate soap with fun. He created the National Soap Sculpture Contest, complete with heavily publicized cash prizes. A sweeping success, it became an annual tradition that kept children whittling away at Ivory for the next 38 years.

Torches of Freedom

Not all of Bernays' campaigns were so wholesome. One of his most well-known, if not controversial, projects was for Lucky Strike cigarettes. In the late 1920s, American Tobacco Company chairman George Washington Hill charged Bernays' PR firm with acquiring a new market for its cigarettes -women. In Eddie's words, "Hill become obsessed with the prospect of winning over the largest potential female market for Luckies. 'If I can crack that market.' he said to me one day, "it will be like opening a new goldmine right in our front yard.'"

For the campaign, Bernays enlisted the help of his wife, fellow marketing genius Doris Fleischman. First, they worked to brand cigarettes as an alternative to candy. When that didn't work, they tried to convince women that green -the official color of Luckies- was the new black. With assistance from editors at Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, green began to dominate the fashion world. The duo even orchestrated a "Green Ball" in New York, featuring some of the city's most prominent socialites. Although Lucky Strikes' sales climbed, it wasn't enough. Bernays and Fleischman realized that true success would require overcoming a major taboo. In society's eyes, women still weren't allowed to smoke in public. Armed with the knowledge that many women smoked in private, they staged an event that captivated the nation.

On Easter Sunday in 1929, a group of ten women strolled down Fifth Avenue in full view of church-going families (as well as conveniently-placed photographers) flaunting lit cigarettes, which they called their "Torches of Freedom." The news story caught fire, and controversy raged between women's groups on both sides of the issue. Around the nation, copycat "Torches of Freedom" sparked up, and millions of dollars poured into the coffers of American Tobacco.

Smoke and Mirrors

Unfortunately, the tobacco campaign backfired on Bernays. His wife Doris joined the legions of female smokers and became a lifelong tobacco user, despite protests from Eddie and their children.

Overcome with guilt, Bernays launched a radical plan in 1964 to eradicate smoking from society. Wielding medical research on the harmful effects of tobacco, he campaigned to convince America that smoking was an "antisocial action which no self-respecting person carries on in the presence of others." His efforts led to a ban on cigarette advertising from radio and television, which dealt a major blow to companies he once served.

Eddie felt guilty about other things, too. In the early 1950s, the United Fruit Company enlisted his help in Guatemala. The company was trying to hold onto the land leased to them by the government -land that national officials wanted to reclaim for the Guatemalan people. Bernays responded by waging a propaganda war that made president Jacobo Arbenz out to be a Communist. The claim was categorically untrue, but McCarthy-era politicos seized the rhetoric and rallied for war against the tiny nation. Bernays enlisted the CIA's help and orchestrated an elaborate liberation campaign to replace the democratically-elected president with a United Fruit Company puppet. The resulting Banana Republic lasted for decades.

Bernays must have felt his greatest moment of self-doubt in 1933 when foreign correspondent Karl von Weigand contacted him upon his return from Nazi Germany. During an interview with Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's devoted friend and minister of propaganda, von Weigand had noticed a familiar book sitting prominently on Goebbels' desk; it was Bernays' seminal work Crystallizing Public Opinion. Ironically, Eddie was Jewish.

The Sultan of Spin

Bernays formally retired in the early 1960s, but he kept working as a consultant until he was 100 years old. In 1990, he was voted to LIFE magazine's list of the 100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century. Bernays died on March 9, 1995 in Cambridge, Mass. at the age of 103.

Through his long and storied career, it's estimated that Bernays had 435 clients, not to mention countless disciples. His exhaustive list of clients included General Motors, the NAACP, the Multiple Sclerosis Society, and CBS, as well as famed individuals like playwright Eugene O'Neill, painter Georgia O'Keefe, and presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover.

Despite his controversial campaigns, Bernays always demanded that PR professional adhere to a strict moral code. He believed the field should be licensed, like that of lawyers or doctors, so that only qualified professionals could practice. After all, he -more than anyone- understood that with the power of public persuasion came great responsibilities.


The article above, written by Fabian Marquez, is reprinted with permission from the March-April 2008 issue of mental_floss magazine.

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