How to Engineer Opinion

How much of what we buy at the supermarket or clothes stores really reflects our individual tastes and preferences and how much simply because we have been told that is what we really want? Of course, no one pops out on the TV screen or radio yelling “Buy this, comrade, or it’s Siberia for you!” The process is so subtle that it is undetectable but its effects are permanent. How do you change the breakfast habits of an entire nation? Or persuade women that smoking is a symbol of freedom? Or, for that matter, convince an overwhelmingly isolationist public that it was not only their duty but their moral obligation to participate in the trench carnage taking place in Europe during WW I? All this was the work of one genius: Edward Bernays
Edward Bernays was born in Vienna, then the capital of Austria-Hungary, in 1891. His maternal uncle was no other that Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, who was to have the most profound and lasting influence throughout his life. In 1892 his family moved to New York City, where he attended De Witt High School and eventually graduated from Cornell University with a degree in agriculture but decided instead on journalism as a career. He met Doris Fleischman and married her in 1922. He joined the Wilson Administration and became a member of the US Government Committee on Public Information (CPI), along with Walter Lippman. The CPI was the instrument President Wilson employed in his attempt to convince the American public, which was firmly isolationist, to join the war effort against Germany. Bernays combined the ideas of social psychologists Gustave Le Bon (the originator of crowd psychology) and Wilfred Trotter (author of “Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War”) with the psychoanalytical ideas of his uncle Sigmund to come up with the slogan that America’s war effort was solely aimed at “bringing democracy to Europe” and to “make the world safe for democracy”. His campaign was so successful in swaying the American public into supporting the war that he started to think that the same propaganda template could also be used in peacetime.

Because the Germans had used it so extensively during the war, the word “propaganda” -which originally had merely meant information- had fallen into disrepute. He therefore originated the term “Public Relations” He also developed the notion, along with Walter Lippman, that the public’s democratic judgement was not to be trusted. The American public could easily vote for the wrong person or back the wrong idea, so it had to be guided from above, but quietly, by the enlightened minority he came to call “the invisible government” (“Propaganda“, 1928)
Although he was not the inventor, Bernays refined and popularized the technique of the “press release” Ever wonder why bacon and eggs came to be “the American Breakfast?” In the 1920’s the Beech-Nut Packing Company experienced a drop in the sales of their pork products; to reverse the trend, they hired Edward Bernays to do “public relations” for the company. He immediately went to the company doctor and posed this question to him: “is a hearty breakfast better for good health than a light breakfast?” Bear in mind that at the time the breakfast fare of most Americans consisted of coffee or tea, and toast. This was a carry over from the times of Andrew Jackson, when simplicity was stressed and gluttony, as exemplified by big meals of any kind, was considered a sin. When the doctor dutifully answered that a hearty breakfast was better for overall good health, he asked him if he would write to 5,000 other doctors and ask the same question. When the answers came back, all affirmative, Bernays then asked this roundabout question: “Is a bacon and eggs breakfast a hearty breakfast?” The doctor again answered “yes” and the campaign was born. Bernays issued a “press release” stating that 5,000 doctors said that bacon and eggs for breakfast were important for the overall good health of America. The image of a doctor, dressed in white endorsing bacon, became the symbol of a good breakfast. Bacon sales not only recovered, but broke previous records and the breakfast habits of the nation changed radically.

In the 1920’s Bernays came up with a legendary publicity campaign to overcome a major social taboo: women were then only allowed to smoke in designated areas; those caught smoking in public would have been arrested and fined. While working for the American Tobacco Company, Bernays staged the 1929 Easter Parade in New York City and hired models to be part not only of the parade but also of the public, all holding lit Lucky Strike cigarettes, which he called “torches of freedom” He followed it with a “press release” which brought the event to the pages of every newspaper. The resulting publicity started women smoking more than ever before and women’s smoking habits became socially acceptable.

Another of his clients was the Aluminium Company of America, ALCOA, which had a problem with a waste by product of its operations: fluoride, which in sufficient quantities can be toxic. By the happy coincidence of stained teeth in Colorado, caused by the fluoride in the water supply and the fact that those teeth were shown to be resistant to caries, the conclusion was reached that ALCOA’s waste product was a tooth saver. Bernays convinced the American Dental Association and obtained their coveted endorsement for the concept of adding fluoride to the water supplies of almost every city in America, an effort which continues to this day. He designed the Proctor and Gamble campaign to convince the American housewife that Ivory Soap was medically superior and pure because it floated -the bars were injected with air bubbles during manufacturing. He also helped persuade consumers that Dixie Cups were preferable to the shared water glasses common in that era.

It was Bernays’s public relations efforts that popularized Freud’s theories in the US. He combined them with Le Bon’s theories on crowd psychology (The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, Gustave Le Bon, 1895) and used the combination to design his public persuasion campaigns. He was the first to employ what is today a common technique. In the past, an entrepeneur would recognize a need and manufacture a product to meet the need; but what happens to a product for which there is no need? The answer? Create a need, convince the public that their lives, health and welfare all depend on the acquisition of what was up to then an unwanted object or service. Behind all this, there was the notion that the public’s dangerous and libidinal tendencies could be controlled and channelled by a corporate elite. He recognized that one of the by products of universal education and suffrage was the creation of an anonymous mass with primitive power and little discernment besides of what was immediately in front of it and that its irrational desires and wants could be used to secure a niche in the mass production economy; a side benefit of placating the masses’ dangerous urges was the avoidance of the stresses that threatened to tear societies apart.

None of this could be accomplished without Bernays’s “Invisible Government”. We see the trend setters, the opinion makers and the many leaders of institutions that influence us, but they are not this invisible government. Who influences the influencers? The almost anonymous (at least to the vast majority) fashion designer from whichever city holds the fashion crown at the time? The “public relations” person who plants “suggestions” in the ears of presidents, senators, congressmen and such perceived leaders?

Bernays’s idea of “the manipulation of the masses as a necessary and natural feature of a democratic society” created a two-faced creature; on the one hand, there was the intrinsically harmless promotion of soap, Dixie Cups, water fluoridation and breakfast bacon. On the other, there was the women’s smoking campaign, which he came to regret later in life, after his wife died of lung cancer. The darkest facet of this manipulation of the masses took place in Germany, where Joseph Goebbels applied its principles to secure the Nazi rise to power; when he launched his destructive anti-Jewish propaganda, he used Bernays’s “Crystallizing Public Opinion” as the basis for his campaign.

The 20th century became the Age of the Masses, aimless and powerful; whatever we may think of Bernays’s methods, he recognized the phenomenon and formulated the means of channelling its energies; in this, he was not alone. Others had already written about it, but it was Bernays who put the principles in a coherent and rational manner. The principles he used were neither good or evil by themselves; the same principles that launched a smoking campaign were used on behalf of the NAACP to combat racial discrimination.
Edward Bernays died in 1995, in Cambridge, Massachusetts at the age of 103. His name has fallen off the mainstream consciousness and is remembered mainly in the advertising circles, but his influence is pervasive in our society. Just look at the constant barrage of entertainment aimed at a passive public, our political discourse changed from comprehensive debate to Q and A sessions where candidates have 2 minutes to answer complex questions, political campaigns consisting of quick and snappy slogans and speeches long on words and short on meaning.

Edward Bernays surely deserves to be enshrined in the American pantheon of genius.



  1. He really was a genius. I wonder how he’d fare with today’s social media world? Thanks for sharing this post, great info!

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