Who Was Edward Bernays?
Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, can be considered the father of public relations and propaganda. Bernays literally wrote the book on propaganda, public relations, and manipulating public opinion.
Bernays’s mastery of propaganda and the general art of public influence, as illustrated in his works, laid the foundation for much of the marketing of the 20th century, and his theories are still employed in marketing and public relations today.
What Newton is to Physics, or Adam Smith is to economics, Bernays is to Propaganda (which he later dubbed public relations, somewhat ironically playing public relations on behalf of the term propaganda which he himself popularized).
Life magazine once called Edward Bernays, “one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century”, but that may be an understatement.
Bernays combined the work of his uncle, Sigmund Feud, with previous concepts of crowd psychology and group decision making to create the handbook of modern public relations illustrated in his book Propaganda (1928). In the first chapter of Propaganda Bernays describes the New World Order and how to use emotion to steer “the ship” towards western democracy. His subsequent books followed a similar theme of explaining influence and the ethics of influence. Bernays used his powers for the good, bad, and ugly, and it is only through studying Bernays that we can understand the complexity, morality, and implications of his work.
You can read Propaganda by Bernays online here (or buy a copy of Propaganda and his other works from this affiliate link). His other works included aptly named titles like “Public Relations“, “Manipulating Public Opinion“, “Democratic Leadership in Total War“, “Psychological Blueprint for Peace“, and “The Engineering of Consent“… The theme should be clear to you by now. I strongly suggest you read his works if you want to understand the world you live in.
TIP: Before you go demonizing Bernays, consider his 1940 Book “Speak Up for Democracy: What You Can Do—A Practical Plan of Action for Every American Citizen“.
HOW TO CONTROL WHAT PEOPLE DO | PROPAGANDA BY EDWARD BERNAYS | ANIMATED BOOK REVIEW.
“A Public Relations counsel must never accept a retainer or assume a position which puts his duty to the groups he represents above his duty to society” – Bernays “This Business of Propaganda” (1928). Wise words from Bernays, but not ones he always followed.
Understanding Edward Bernays the Master of Propaganda in Context
Edward Bernays can be considered the father of public relations due to his theories on how to sway public opinion without force in a free-market centered democracy. As Adam Smith noted in his Wealth of Nations pertaining to his Theory of Moral Sentiments (paraphrasing), “if the average person isn’t moved by goodness, we can at least understand how to organize a society around the type of selfish moral sentiment that does motivate them”.
This line of thinking may seem amoral, but a close reading of the classics shows that Bernays simply wrote the modern version of Aristotle’s Rhetoric which was written in 350 BC. In truth, there isn’t much Bernays says that Aristotle hadn’t said before.
You see, even Aristotle believed that rhetoric and political science, along with the study of ethics (ethos), was the key to moving society (polis) toward a more virtuous path (arete). In this way, many philosophers and social scientists from Aristotle to Bernays tried to understand the art of influence.
With this said, unlike Aristotle and Smith, Bernays took some seedy contracts and, through no direct action of his own, inspired Joseph Goebbels propaganda master of the NAZIs. So Bernays the man, is a little more complex than hero or villain, but his work (like Aristotle’s) remains as vital and arguably virtuous as ever (in the right hands at least).
What is Propaganda?
Propaganda is the art of manipulating public opinion through mass marketing, or, in other words, through “public relations.” Propaganda is also a book written by Edward L. Bernays in 1928. It is rivaled, in my opinion, only by Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People as far as modern books on behavioral science go.
TIP: You can see another more conspiracy oriented take on Bernays here. I strongly disagree with the conspiracy take on Bernays, after all, Bernays specifically sheds light on conspiracy and clearly lays out his tactics for others. That said, there is a fun rabbit hole to go down if that is your thing. You can also check out “Noam Chomsky on Edward Bernays and the Advertising industry” or “Manufacturing Consent – Noam Chomsky” for another look at social engineering (the overarching field in which “engineering consent” falls under).
Was Bernays Good or Bad?
Neither Bernays nor propaganda is good or bad, but neither are they easy to explain in a talking point. Thus, we often conveniently avoid uttering them on the public stage.
Bernays studied the complex relationship between human psychology, democracy, and corporations, and wrote a handbook for those mechanics; he didn’t invent the relationships he just shed light on them.
Bernays’ intentions were good enough. He wanted to influence people for their good through marketing using group social psychology. To use propaganda to effectively advance social issues like women’s rights, education, and social services. The question then becomes, “when one has the power to influence society for good, can we call the utilizing of this power ‘bad,’ or expect it not to be used? Is it our understanding, and not the actions of others, that need an examination?”
At his core, Bernays wanted to advance western democracy, and that is commendable and even admirable. He recognized that he wasn’t alone and that many loosely or unconnected groups had this same goal throughout human history. He wrote a handbook for all “modern propagandists” who wanted to read it. From 1928 on, history had been quietly changed for the first time as the non-elite class gained access to the handbook of the art of social influence (social engineering).
TIP: You can read Propaganda by Bernays online here for free.
Bernays helped America win the war with his personal public relation campaigns. He influenced you to eat bacon and eggs in the morning, and that is not bad. He is also the reason water is fluoridated, and the reason women smoke.
Bernays was not particularly idealistic when it came to taking consulting contracts, although his written work is a good deal more idealistic than his actions. When he consulted, his ideas were applied to both positive and negative forces.
Good and bad aside, his ideas are just as powerful today as they were in a time before social media and the internet.
The Invention of Public Relations.
Is Propaganda Good or Bad?
The word propaganda has been viewed in a negative light since WWII, hence today’s more common use of the term public relations. Ultimately, however, Bernays theories of propaganda, public relations, and marketing aren’t inherently good or bad.
It’s not the tools you have; it is how you use them. Such is the nature of the world.
With this in mind. I invite you to watch this documentary about the master of propaganda, the man behind nearly every marketing campaign of the 20th century (at least in spirit), Edward Louis James Bernays.
Edward Bernays and the Art of Public Manipulation. The other side of Bernays.
“Public relations, effectively used, helps validate an underlying principle of our society — competition in the market place of ideas and things.” – Edward Bernays
Shaping Public Opinion: Crash Course Government and Politics #34. Here is the effects of Bernays and PR in modern life, as presented by PBS CrashCourse.