How Bernays Changed the World Through PR

Commentary, Culture Wars, Lee Harding

Edward Bernays (1891-1995) changed the world in ways that are still felt today. The nephew of Sigmund Freud was dubbed the Father of Spin and the Father of Public Relations for pioneering breakthroughs in his craft. A close examination of his accomplishments could help readers reconsider the perceptions of our times which may reflect media manipulation more than reality.

In 1913, American actor Richard Bennett hired Bernays to defend his play “Damaged Goods” that promoted sex education against police interference. Bernays set up a front organization purported to fight sexually transmitted diseases called the Medical Review of Reviews Sociological Fund which claimed the play was made under its auspices. It was not the last time Bernays would use health authorities for propaganda purposes.

In the 1920s Bernays was hired by the Beech-Nut Packing Company which sold bacon. “We made a research and found out that people ate a very light breakfast of coffee, maybe a roll, and some orange juice,” He recalled in a segment available on National Public Radio.

“We went to our physician, found that a heavy breakfast was sounder…We asked the physician after telling him why we were talking to him, would he be willing at no cost to write to 5,000 physicians and ask them whether their judgment was the same as his.”

Bernays paid for the printing and delivery of the letters, which received favourable responses. Newspapers nationwide proclaimed that over 4,500 doctors agreed that a heavy breakfast was a healthy one, with many articles mentioning “bacon and eggs” as components. The classic American breakfast was born. Incidentally, Bernays also pioneered political pancake breakfasts, arranging the first for the campaign of U.S. President Calvin Coolidge.

In the 1920s, the American Tobacco Company hired Bernays to end the social taboo against women smoking. He consulted psychoanalyst Abraham Brill who told Bernays that feminists viewed cigarettes like torches of freedom from male oppression.

Bernays “arranged circumstances,” a tactic he mentioned in his 1928 book Propaganda. He asked a female friend to find women to march in the New York City Easter Day parade and to advise the press that women’s rights marchers would light “Torches of Freedom”. Photographers captured the moment and on April 1, 1929, The New York Times printed, “Group of Girls Puff at Cigarettes as a Gesture of ‘Freedom.'” These were Lucky Strike cigarettes made by Bernays’ client.

Polls by Bernays showed women did not like the forest green colour of Lucky Strike cigarettes, so he sought to make them fashionable. Bernays had letters written to interior and fashion designers, department stores and prominent women to promote that shade of green as trendy. Gallery exhibitions, window displays and balls soon featured Lucky Strike green to the benefit of Bernays’ client.

In the late 1940s, Bernays was hired to encourage the fluoridation of drinking water by the Aluminum Company of America who wanted Americans to believe their hazardous byproduct of fluoride salts was beneficial to human health. Bernays used the American Dental Association as part of a successful media campaign. The John Birch Society called fluoridation “creeping socialism,” which Bernays used to castigate opponents of the campaign as right-wing kooks. Such perceptions remain.

Under dictator Jorge Ubico, the United Fruit Company (now Chiquita Brands International) gained control of 42 per cent of land in Guatemala and enjoyed tax exemptions and freedom from import duties. Then in 1953, the socialist government of Jacobo Arbenz redistributed the company’s land to the citizens who worked it, so United Fruit hired Bernays to restore Guatemala to a “banana republic.”

Bernays flew influential journalists to Guatemala, entertained them and arranged them to meet politicians who said Arbenz was a Communist controlled by Moscow. Then the media witnessed a violent anti-American demonstration in the capital, thought to be organized by Bernays himself. He even created a fake news agency in the U.S. called the Middle American Information Bureau that issued many press releases saying the Soviets planned to use Guatemala to launch attacks on the U.S.

Many prominent members of the Eisenhower administration had ties to United Fruit, which helped lead the CIA to train and arm rebels to topple the government. Planes flown by CIA pilots dropped bombs on Guatemala City, which Bernays portrayed as freedom-fighting efforts. Arbenz resigned and fled the country on June 27, 1954, and Bernays produced stacks of Marxist literature the public was told were found in the vacated presidential palace. In a televised event, Vice President Richard Nixon flew to Guatemala to congratulate the CIA-backed new leader, Colonel Castillo Armas, and his citizens for overthrowing its Communist rulers and bringing in liberty and prosperity. Soon, Armas reversed much of the land reforms and went on to arrest and kill thousands of political opponents.

Most female smokers drinking fluoridated water and having bacon and eggs for breakfast have no idea Bernays is the reason. So what propaganda are we swallowing now, and how much of it is true?

Lee Harding is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

Photo by Werner Pfennig from Pexels.