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The Puppet Master: Meet the Man Who Pulls Society’s Strings

Edward Bernays, often referred to as the Father of Public Relations, or, more truthfully, the Father of Propaganda, left an indelible mark on the world of advertising.

Born in 1891 in Vienna, Austria, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, Bernays learned from his uncle and applied never-before-considered concepts in advertising, primarily appealing to the unconscious, rather than the rational mind.

Having moved to the United States in his youth, Bernays became famous after being involved with WW I efforts. He rebranded the war as a moral and patriotic cause and worked in line with other propagandists, shaped public opinion, disseminated pro-war messages, and influenced American sentiment regarding the war effort.

Some of the best-known campaigns by Bernays

His influence is all over the marketing and advertising of today. Most of the beliefs and behaviours we still see were comprised by Bernays. Below are some of the popular campaigns.

Women smoking

  • In the 1920s, women smoking was seen as scandalous and taboo. Lucky Strike (You probably know it from Mad Men) wanted to increase their profits and half of the non-smoking population seemed like a good fit.
  • Example: Edward Bernays orchestrated a staged event where fashionable debutants smoked cigarettes during a parade, branding them as “torches of freedom,” promoting Lucky Strike cigarettes. The rest is history.

A few examples



Emotional marketing

  • Edward Bernays understood that selling products was about evoking emotions and desires, not just listing utility. This was a revolutionary idea at the time.
  • Another example. Instead of promoting cars based on features, he marketed them as symbols of male sexuality, focusing on emotional appeal. Before Bernays, it was seen as boujee and unnecessary to keep upgrading your car.
  • Bernays advised car companies, like General Motors, to introduce annual design changes to stimulate demand, a strategy known as planned obsolescence. Interesting fact: Ford refused to do so and GM remains a leading car manufacturer to this day.

Shift to consumerism

  • Corporate America feared overproduction after World War I and needed to transition society from a needs-based culture to a wants-based culture.

Quote by Paul Mazur of Lehman Brothers. Source

  • Bernays was like hold my beer and helped companies manufacture desires of products Americans didn’t need, leading to increased profits for corporations. Consumption shifted from needs to wants.

Breakfast habits

  • Bernays influenced American breakfast habits by promoting the idea that a heavier breakfast was healthier through manipulated expert opinions. He went to his physician and asked if he would agree that we expend a lot of calories through the night and, therefore wake up in a calorie deficit in the morning (which is technically true).
  • His doctor agreed and Bernays asked if he could ask other physicians (5k of them) if they thought it was true. I believe with the right incentives ($), they agreed too.
  • As a result, he convinced people that a substantial breakfast was essential, ultimately popularizing the concept of “the most important meal of the day.”

Fashion consumerism

  • Bernays played a role in popularizing department stores and modern fashion consumerism by hosting fashion shows with celebrities and emphasizing clothing as a form of individuality and self-expression.
  • He hired celebrities (something never done before!) to showcase clothing as a means of conveying one’s unique personality and characteristics + influencing regular people to try to dress like their favourite celebrities. This is still very much alive today.

Bernays’ continued influence

Edward Bernays’ legacy continues to be seen in various aspects of modern society, particularly in the fields of advertising, public relations, and consumer culture:

  1. Advertising and Marketing Techniques: The emphasis on emotional appeal, storytelling, and creating a desire for products remains central in advertising campaigns. Companies use celebrities, influencers, and lifestyle branding to connect with consumers on a personal and emotional level.
  2. Consumerism and Planned Obsolescence: The practice of designing products to become outdated or worn out quickly, is still employed by industries like technology and fashion to drive sales.
  3. Public Relations: Bernays is credited with coining the term “public relations,” and his influence in this field endures.
  4. Manipulation of Public Opinion: Bernays’ work highlighted the power of persuasion and manipulation in shaping public opinion. Today, this legacy is evident in the realm of political communication, social media campaigns, and the dissemination of information where individuals and organizations use psychological tactics to influence public perception.

In summary, Edward Bernays’ legacy is very much alive today, as his ideas and techniques continue to shape how products are marketed, public opinion is influenced, and consumer culture operates. I don’t know how to feel about this man. On the one hand, he single-handedly re-invented 3 fields and created an influence alive today and as a psychologist, I find it interesting. On the other hand, his contribution to overconsumption and division within society which is slowly killing our world is painfully obvious.

What is it about Austrians in the XX century?


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