Edward Bernays and the Birth of Consumerism Propaganda

Edward Bernays and the Birth of Consumerism Propaganda

Consumerism, the pervasive and often unquestioned belief in the importance of acquiring and consuming goods and services, has deep roots in the United States. At the heart of the rise of consumer culture stands Edward Bernays, a figure often heralded as the father of consumerism and modern public relations. 

We explore the origins of consumerism in the United States, delving into Edward Bernays’ life and influence. Additionally, we examine Bernays’ four tactics that shaped the consumer-driven culture we witness today and examples of his propaganda in areas like sports, entertainment, and politics, illustrating the enduring impact of his methods on modern society.

I. Edward Bernays: The Father of Consumerism

A. Early Life and Influences

Edward Bernays, born in 1891, was a nephew of Sigmund Freud and grew up in an environment where the understanding of human psychology was paramount. This familial connection to Freudian psychology greatly influenced Bernays’ later work in shaping public opinion and consumer behavior.

B. Propaganda as Public Relations

Bernays pioneered the use of propaganda for public relations, coining the term “public relations counsel” to reframe the practice in a more positive light. Rather than a term associated solely with manipulation, Bernays aimed to position public relations as a means of managing public opinion and behavior for the betterment of society.

II. Bernays’ Four Tactics

To understand Bernays’ influence on consumerism, it’s crucial to examine the four tactics he employed to shape public opinion:

A. Scientific Persuasion

Bernays believed in applying psychological principles to influence public behaviour. By understanding the subconscious desires and fears of the masses, he sought to create persuasive messages that would lead people to make choices aligned with the interests of his clients.

B. Celebrities and Authority Figures

Bernays recognized the power of endorsement by celebrities and authority figures. He strategically engaged influencers to promote products or ideas, capitalizing on the public’s tendency to trust and emulate admired personalities.

C. Creating News

Bernays understood that the media played a pivotal role in shaping public opinion. Instead of waiting for news to happen, he actively created events and stories to generate media coverage, ensuring that his clients’ messages reached a broader audience.

D. Association and Emotional Appeal

By associating products or ideas with emotions, desires, or societal values, Bernays aimed to create a deep connection between the consumer and the product. This emotional appeal became a cornerstone of modern advertising.

III. Examples of Bernays’ Propaganda

A. Torches of Freedom

One of Bernays’ most famous campaigns was the “Torches of Freedom” campaign in the 1920s. To increase cigarette sales for the American Tobacco Company, he linked smoking to the concept of women’s liberation. During the Easter Sunday Parade in 1929, Bernays orchestrated a group of debutantes to smoke cigarettes as a symbol of freedom and equality. This campaign not only boosted cigarette sales but also contributed to the social acceptance of smoking among women.

B. Breakfast is the Most Important Meal of the Day

Another impactful campaign orchestrated by Bernays was the promotion of bacon and eggs as the quintessential American breakfast. Commissioned by the Beech-Nut Packing Company in the 1920s, Bernays leveraged his connections with health professionals to promote the idea that a hearty breakfast, including bacon and eggs, was crucial for maintaining health. This campaign not only boosted the sales of bacon but also ingrained the idea of a substantial breakfast in American culture.

C. Ivory Soap and the Cleanliness Campaign

To boost sales for Procter & Gamble’s Ivory Soap, Bernays launched a campaign in the early 1900s promoting the idea that cleanliness was a social duty. By emphasizing the link between personal hygiene and social responsibility, he successfully increased the demand for Ivory Soap and set a precedent for associating personal care products with societal values.

IV. Bernays’ Influence on Modern Society

A. Sports

Bernays’ influence extends to the world of sports, where endorsements and celebrity associations play a significant role in marketing. Athletes endorsing products leverage their influence to sway public opinion and drive consumer behavior. This strategy has become a norm in modern sports marketing, with athletes aligning themselves with various brands to enhance their marketability.

B. Entertainment

The entertainment industry has embraced Bernays’ tactics, utilizing celebrity endorsements and creating news events to generate publicity. The intertwining of entertainment and advertising is evident in product placements within movies, TV shows, and music videos. This seamless integration has blurred the lines between entertainment and marketing, shaping consumer preferences and behavior.

C. Politics

Bernays’ influence on politics is profound, with his methods shaping political campaigns and public discourse. The use of emotional appeals, association with values, and the creation of news events are prevalent in modern political communication. Political figures often employ public relations experts to manage their image and craft narratives that resonate with the electorate.

The Legacy of Edward Bernays

Edward Bernays’ legacy is complex, as his contributions to public relations and consumer culture have both positive and negative implications. While his tactics have undeniably shaped modern advertising and marketing, critics argue that his methods sometimes border on manipulation, steering individuals toward decisions that may not align with their best interests.

Edward Bernays’ role as the father of consumerism and modern public relations is indisputable. His four tactics – scientific persuasion, celebrity endorsements, creating news, and emotional appeal – have left an indelible mark on the way products, ideas, and political messages are marketed today. Bernays’ propaganda campaigns in the early 20th century not only transformed the advertising landscape but also influenced societal norms and values, shaping the culture of modern society across various domains.

As we continue to grapple with the consequences of a consumer-driven culture, understanding Bernays’ legacy provides valuable insights into the origins and evolution of consumerism in the United States.