How One Man Manipulated All of America

This is the story of how one man manipulated an entire country. Like a true puppeteer, he inconspicuously tugged on the strings of society, guiding it along his chosen path. This is the story of Edward Bernays: the man who manipulated America. 

X Marks the Spot

Our story begins after World War 1. 

Year: 1929.
Location: The city that never sleeps. AKA: New York.

America had undergone massive changes in the past several decades. Both the first and second Industrial Revolution had taken place, public education had largely been established, and over 50% of American citizens were living in cities [1]. The city had moved past its embryonic state and was now fully alive. A larger and growing middle class emerged. 

As a result of urbanization, more people were living in less space than ever before. 

Industrialization gave us the ability to produce more goods than ever before. These products were desirable by a growing middle class which had more disposable income than generations of the past. 

There is a yin and yang to city life. In some ways it gives to us and, in other ways, it takes from us. It put more fish in our sea but it made it so much harder to stand out among the ocean of people.

The consummation of these factors helped give birth to a new culture of consumerism. 

There was, however, one problem. Due to industrialization, supply was capable of being much higher than demand. A business owner that could increase the demand of his products was like a pirate who had found an x on his map. This insight, in large part, paved the way for modern advertising. 

Many owners were willing to go to great lengths to manipulate the public into buying their goods. This brings us to the man of the hour and the focal point of this essay: Edward Bernays. 

The Puppeteer

Bernays was the nephew of the iconic psychologist Sigmund Freud and, arguably, the father of public relations and propaganda. At the time, advertisements were quite straightforward; they were a strict statement of the factual benefits of owning a product. Largely inspired by the work of his uncle, Bernays believed that advertisements would be much more effective if advertisers understood group psychology. If they could understand the emotions, longings, unconscious desires, and questions of the consumer, they could market their product as a fulfilling answer. This may seem obvious today but it was a revolutionary form of advertising at the time that Bernays helped popularize. 

So the question naturally arose: If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it?
— Edward Bernays, Propaganda

For example, a car company should market a car as a symbol of social status, wealth, and power as opposed to stating facts about how well it runs. The latter describes how cars actually used to be advertised! A salesman would have highlighted the factual benefits of a car: how far it could drive without refuelling, how it handles on the road, and whether it was automatic or manual.

Bernays honed his skill of manipulating the public during WW1. He was hired to help rally national support for the war efforts. His primary weapon? Propaganda. What is propaganda? Here’s a definition from Bernays’ book :

The mechanism by which ideas are disseminated on a large scale is propaganda, in the broad sense of an organized effort to spread a particular belief or doctrine.
— Edward Bernays, Propaganda

Essentially, propagandists use media, such as magazines, newspapers, radio, the internet, and video, to manipulate the masses into accepting, or conforming to, a certain idea. 

Because of its use in the World Wars, propaganda has taken on a very negative connotation. It manipulates people into adopting a particular belief or doctrine with the intent of removing their autonomy. Many people see it as inherently wrong to use. On the other-hand, Bernays thought that propaganda was wrong only when it was spreading lies or used for nefarious ends.

Propaganda becomes vicious and reprehensive only when its authors consciously and deliberately disseminate what they know to be lies, or when they aim at effects which they know to be prejudicial to the common good.
— Edward Bernays, Propaganda

What makes this idea so troubling is that Bernays believes that he and other propagandists know what is beneficial for the common good. This is a common trait among dictators and a theme that appears over and over again in his work. He truly believed that most people were stupid sheep that needed an elite and intelligent class to shepherd them.

Before we dive deeper into one of Bernays’ most notable campaigns, I think it’s important to understand his overarching methodology for influencing the public. 

Marionette Strings

Symbolism. As stated earlier, Bernays was a big believer in symbolism. An idea or a product can become a movement when it represents something greater than itself. He believed that indirect methods of selling that appealed to a consumers unconscious thoughts, emotions, and desires were much more potent than directly selling to a consumer using facts. [2]

Influencers. Another one of Bernays’ powerful tactics was using authoritative or influential figures to help spread a message. Think of a hierarchy. Bernays believed that influencing the people at the top of the pyramid would cause his influence to cascade downwards. One person - a celebrity, for example - can have influence over thousands of people. Bernays knew, if he could convince a single figure to adopt his ideology, that figure would effectively spread the message to their followers. This is known as influencer marketing and is utilized often by modern advertisers. 

If you can influence the leaders, either with or without their conscious cooperation, you automatically influence the group which they sway.
— Bernays, Propaganda

Group Norms. By altering group norms, Bernays could impose a social pressure on consumers that would force them to buy something to “fit in”. [2]

Mental Space. Bernays understood that a consumers mental space was the holy grail of advertising. Securing a safe spot in as many minds as possible was the prime objective. For that reason, he believed in advertising EVERYWHERE. Newspapers. Magazines. Radio. It was all necessary. The total amount of mental space available was limited and so competition for it was intense. [2]

For example, let’s assume that I sell apples. My competition isn’t just other apple companies. It’s all food sellers, because individuals are limited in the amount of food they can eat in one day. Therefore, I want to advertise more than ALL other food sellers. Whether you’re thinking of breakfast, lunch, dinner, or dessert I want the apple to be the primary food that occupies your mind. Essentially, I’m competing with all other food sellers for that small space in your mind that you reserve for information on which groceries to buy. 

Bernays fundamentally understood this idea of “inter-commodity” competition [2]. Popular examples of inter-commodity wars today would be taxis vs ubers, movie theatres vs arcades, and newspapers vs online video. 

Now that we understand a bit more about Bernays and his methods, we can discuss one of his most notable campaigns: getting women to smoke. 

Reach for a Lucky

As a result of the first World War, many women had taken up jobs that, previously, only men had worked. They were starting to make their own incomes and becoming more independent. As a symbolic declaration of their newfound independence, some women began smoking cigarettes - a behaviour typically reserved for men. Smoking was still largely taboo among women and looked down upon by the majority of society. Although, this dynamic was slowly shifting. [5]

At the same time, slim figures were coming into vogue. [3, 5, 6]

Cigarette companies wanted to capitalize on both of these trends and win over the female demographic. One business in particular, the American Tobacco Company (ATC), hired Edward Bernays to help tap into the burgeoning female market. The president of the ATC, George Washington Hill, wanted to make “Lucky Strikes” - his flagship brand of cigarettes - popular among women. 

With the help of Albert Lasker, the ATC came up with an ingenious but evil slogan: “Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet.” Bernays was enlisted to help popularize the message that smoking a Lucky, as opposed to eating a sweet, would help women achieve their ideal figures. [3, 7]

Bernays reached out to popular photographers, magazines, and newspapers to help spread the idea that thin figures were, indeed, the new fashion. He also recruited medical experts to advocate cigarettes as a healthy alternative to eating sweets. [3]

Bernays tried to build two key associations in the public mind using propaganda: 

1. being thin is fashionable. 

2. cigarettes help you get thin. 

The campaign helped increase the amount of women smoking in America but it still wasn’t enough for Hill. He said that women have become more comfortable smoking indoors but there was still a taboo around smoking outdoors. Once again, he enlisted Bernays to help solve this dilemma. [3, 5, 6]

Torches of Freedom

As we already know, Bernays inherited a love of symbolism from his uncle Freud. More women were already starting to smoke during and after WW1, as a symbolic way of challenging male power. Bernays wanted to capitalize on that trend. 

In the year 1929, he staged a notable event — during the Easter Sunday Parade in New York — that would help popularize smoking a cigarette as a symbol of female independence. Several young suffragettes, what we might refer to today as feminists, were hired to publicly smoke cigarettes during the parade. The cigarettes were to be referred to as “Torches of Freedom”.  [3, 5]

Bernays knew that this public declaration of independence and challenge of male power would be eaten up by the press. He even hired his own photographers to make sure that high-quality photos were taken of the momentous occasion [3]. He knew that media coverage would spark a controversial debate, in homes and offices all across the country, about women smoking. Any female who wanted to partake in the debate and publicly declare her independence could do so by smoking a cigarette.

Making Effective Propaganda

This single campaign highlights some of Bernays’ tactics for making effective propaganda. 

1. Create symbols - the cigarette (product) was linked to female independence (symbol) in order to increase the perceived value of the product. The cigarette became more than a product: it became a movement.

2. Appeal to unconscious desires - Bernays first linked cigarettes to the female desire to be thin which was coming into vogue at the time. Afterwards, Bernays linked the cigarette to the growing female independence movement.

3. Normalizing behaviour (everyone’s doing it, you should too!) - Bernays did not, at anytime, directly advertise cigarettes to the public. Instead, he helped normalize certain behaviours in society. First, he helped bring thin frames into fashion by reaching out to influencers and media connections. Then, he linked Lucky Strikes cigarettes with thinness and helped normalize smoking among women.

4. Mental Space - Bernays tried to be in as many media outlets, newspapers, magazines, and minds as possible. He wanted smoking to occupy a place in everyones heads. One of the most effective ways to claim that mental space was by sparking conflict and debate in the community.

Edward Bernays 

So, you may be wondering: why did I choose to discuss Edward Bernays in this essay? This essay is part of a longer series that will explore the effects of propaganda and, ultimately, social control. I thought Bernays served as a good focal point to begin the discussion on because he was a pioneer in public relations and mass media propaganda. A journalist once told Bernays that he was one of many influences on Joseph Goebbels: the Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany. [4] 

For better or worse, Bernays was one of the first people to see public relations and propaganda in a scientific way. He helped create a framework for how propaganda works in many of his books such as “Crystallizing Public Opinion” and “Propaganda”. He popularized concepts that are very prevalent in advertising today. 

Products have become symbols of something an individual wants to signal to the outer world or a substitute for a certain feeling. Buying a car brings status. Purchasing a new phone brings happiness. Buying those new style of shoes becomes necessary to avoid the social pressure of not fitting in.

Bernays believed that any product or idea could be sold to the public through the use of propaganda as long, as the propagandist understood group psychology. 

Now, the big question becomes: is it possible to defend yourself against propaganda? I’m a little torn over this question myself, but I will do my best to explore it in some upcoming videos but, for now, I really wanted to turn the question over to you. Do you think it’s possible to defend yourself against propaganda?