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Little Known Characters in America

Little Known Characters in America: Edward Bernays

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Edward Bernays

Edward Bernays (November 22, 1891-March 9, 1995) was an American pioneer in the field of public relations and propaganda. Bernays was named one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century by Life.

Graduating from Cornell University in 1912, he began his career in public relations as he had several courses in journalism.

After the United States entered World War I, Bernays was hired to work for the Bureau of Latin-American Affairs, based in an office in New York. Bernays focused on building support for war, domestically and abroad, focusing especially on businesses operating in Latin America. Bernays would refer to his work as “psychological warfare.”

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At the conclusion of WWI, Bernays was part of a publicity group working for the United States at the Peace Conference. A scandal developed from his reference to propaganda in a press release. As reported by the New York World “the object of the expedition is to ‘interpret the Work of the Peace Conference by keeping up a worldwide propaganda to disseminate American accomplishments and ideals.’”

Bernays later described a realization that his work at the Peace Conference could be applied to affect the attitudes of the enemy, of neutrals, and people of this country. In other words, what could be done for a nation at war could be done for organizations and people in a nation at peace.

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After returning to New York, Bernays opened a public relations business. In 1923, he published a book outlining his profession. He would later refer to himself as a “public relations counsel.”

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Soon large corporations realized that Bernays could help them in promoting their products. Among those that hired Bernays was Procter and Gamble, the American Tobacco Company, CBS, General Electric, and Dodge Motors.

Even those in the political arena found Bernays helpful in improving their image. For example, he assisted President Calvin Coolidge to change his stuffy image prior to the 1924 election.

During the 1920s it was not recognized what damage smoking could do to one’s health. Therefore, he worked for the American Tobacco Company and promoted the Lucky Strike cigarette. One of Barneys’ objectives was to promote smoking by women by persuading women that smoking was better for your health than eating sweets.

Throughout the job with the American Tobacco Company Bernays concealed the fact that he was working for the company. In fact, Bernays did not smoke himself and persistently tried to induce his wife to quit. After his semi-retirement in the 1960s, he worked with pro-health anti-smoking groups to support the anti-smoking campaigns.

Bernays pioneered the public relations industry’s use of psychology and other social sciences to design its public persuasion campaigns: “If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group’s mind it is possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it.”

It is impossible to fundamentally grasp the social, political, economic and cultural developments of the past 100 years without some understanding of Bernays and his professional heirs in the public relations industry. PR is a 20th-century phenomenon, and Bernays — widely eulogized as the “father of public relations” at the time of his death in 1995 — played a major role in defining the industry’s philosophy and methods.


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