During a recent presentation I gave at Georgetown University’s Public Relations/Corporate Communications program in Washington, D.C., I asked who had heard of Edward Bernays. Out of a room of about 50 students—most of whom were working professionals in the field—only two people raised their hands.
There’s a good chance you haven’t heard of Bernays, either. And that’s ironic, considering he was the man who was instrumental in bringing enormous fame to products and people in the mid-20th century. Bernays, the father of modern-day public relations, seems to have faded into the shadows of history books. He was the invisible architect of mass manipulation in advertising, the author of Propaganda, basing his approaches on Sigmund Freud and Gustave Le Bon’s psychological theories. To this day, his influence pervades western consumer culture.
Throughout my career, from the Israeli military to the U.S. defense industry, I’ve been fascinated by the role that communications and storytelling play in our lives. When I was an Israeli soldier in the Division of Doctrine and Training (“TOHAD”), I studied the U.S. military’s use of psychological operations (PSYOPS), with an emphasis on the deployment of the human terrain system in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the U.S. Army puts it, the role of the PSYOPS officer is to “strategically influence and deceive.” Missions are executed not with physical weapons, but with the power to persuade and motivate.
In a way, Bernays was like the advertising world’s version of a PSYOPS officer for hire. Some of the PR concepts Bernays developed were used for positive influence, while other techniques he employed were meant to deceive. To say the least, he was a controversial figure.
Whether you are a communications strategist in the security field or a practitioner of more mainstream marketing, the history of Bernays is remarkable and worth studying.
The Birth of Psychoanalysis in the PR Industry
Bernays was born in 1891 in Austria, but moved to New York with his family when he was only a year old. His uncle was Sigmund Freud. As Bernays’ career took off in the U.S., he stayed in contact with his uncle back in Austria, using his psychological theories in the development of his work in public relations. This included focus groups and psychoanalysis to control key publics for desirable outcomes for companies and, later in his career, to influence political campaigns.
This cigarette campaign was the brainchild of Bernays. (Can you see why this guy was so controversial?)
Building on Freud’s concepts of ‘unconscious or irrational desire,’ Bernays proposed that “we are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.” In other words, he claimed that professionals in the advertising industry basically dictate what we desire—and can convince us that we need things that we really don’t—and usually without us even realizing it.
(For the security-minded folks: according to the U.S. Army, PSYOPS campaigns often involve sharing specific information to influence emotions, motives, and behavior of foreign governments and citizens. See the parallel?)
The Case Study of Instant Cake Mix
One of my favorite oddball stories about Bernays’ approach to product advertising is the story of the Betty Crocker instant cake mix. The formula was developed during World War II as a quick fix box of premixed dry ingredients that only required water for baking. Naturally, its target audience was female.
In the beginning, the cake mix wasn’t selling well, which was surprising. On the surface, the product seemed like a very practical and price-friendly solution for its target audience. Most women in this era were homemakers and the appeal of cutting time in the kitchen should have made the cake mix a winner.
After conducting several focus groups, Bernays declared that an egg was needed in the recipe. His argument: by adding an egg to the recipe the wife/mother will not only feel that she has done more for her family, but also (subconsciously) believe she is giving over her own egg.
Just add eggs!
Admittedly, it sounds bizarre. But adding the water and oil didn’t affect sales. It was only when Betty Crocker added the egg that sales skyrocketed.
By the 1920s, when Bernays was actively working as a PR practitioner, the landscape was just starting to shift from “needs-based” to “wants-based” advertising. Naturally, Bernays took full advantage of this trend.
During this era in the U.S., products were generally advertised with an emphasis on ‘buy what you need.’ So back in the day, an ad for shoes would include wording like, “These shoes last longer, they’re work appropriate, they’re made from tanned leather.” You get the idea.
An example of an ad for shoes in the 1920s
Today, advertising is not about what we need – it’s about what we want as consumers. Ads today are selling more than a product – they’re selling an experience. Like, “these shoes will buy you romance, baby.” Ads today also emphasize variety, so that you can flaunt your individual style.
Shoe ads today have definitely gotten sexier…
The BIG Idea in PR
Storytelling and selling lifestyles through products are now considered a standard in today’s marketing strategies. With this in mind, campaigns are usually tightly woven around a “big idea.” This was a term coined by David Ogilvy in the 1960s to describe an essential ingredient for any advertising campaign. Its main premise is to carefully craft messages to attract the attention of consumers and influence their purchasing decisions.
In today’s PR practitioners’ guidebooks, there are generally four components used for crafting a big idea:
· The big idea strategy (i.e. motivate individuals to purchase/support ‘x’)
· The message itself
· The tangible representation of the idea
· A memorable slogan or tagline
For Bernays, the big idea was more than a unique selling point for advertising purposes; it was a creative strategy and overriding message that appealed to specific key publics. In line with Bernays’ interest in psychoanalysis, the key concept behind this kind of strategy was to motivate individuals to make certain decisions by tapping into their emotions.
Looking back at the two shoe advertisements, it’s hard to deny the difference in emotional texture between the bland ad from the 1930s and the high-octane ads we are generally exposed to today. Tapping into the emotions, telling stories, dipping into psychology—all of these things are obvious to most marketing/communications professionals today, but it wasn’t even on the radar just a few decades ago.
Back to the Security Connection
The contemporary era of warfare is marked by informational competition. From misinformation to cyberattacks to rallying support on social media, it is clear in the current conflict between Ukraine and Russia that both sides are concerned about how information is used in war. Who controls the narrative matters to leaders, because stories are ultimately the primary cognitive framework human beings use to make sense of the world.
Bernays understood this concept and applied it to PR, advertising, and politics; security professionals can take some lessons here, too. Whether you are looking to enhance your understanding of product marketing in the defense industry or psychological operations in warfare, it’s worth putting on your multidisciplinary cap and taking a look at the foundational lessons Bernays brought to the scene.
Agree or disagree? Intrigued? I’d love to hear what you think.
If you would like to learn more about Bernays and the history of psychoanalysis in the PR industry, I recommend watching the award-winning documentary by Adam Curtis titled The Century of the Self.
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About Jessica Lauren Walton: Jessica is a communications strategist, video producer, and writer in the U.S. defense industry. She has written articles on a range of security and mental health topics and conducted interviews with military leadership, psychologists, journalists, CIA officers, filmmakers, and more. Jessica recently completed her memoir about her experience as an American woman struggling with mental illness while trying to get into Israeli intelligence.