Few people have had as profound an effect on the Western world over the last century as Edward Bernays, who died in the USA at the age of 103 in 1995. He is often referred to as the “Father of Public Relations”.
Bernays opened the world’s first public relations office in New York in 1919. He has been the invisible master manipulator of the West over the last 100 years.
He would not mind being called a “master manipulator”. In fact, he would be proud. Manipulating the thoughts and ideas of ordinary people, whom he often called “the masses”, was his life’s work.
Nor would he mind being called “invisible”. He saw himself as part of an “invisible government”.
Here is the opening paragraph of a book he wrote in 1928, called Propaganda.
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”
The invisible governors according to Bernays are “the higher strata of society - the cultivated, the learned, the expert, the intellectual.” They would not necessarily even know each other but would control the masses,“It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”
Bernays regarded rule by the invisible governors as necessary and benign. The alternative he said would be chaos and confusion. He thought the masses “were really pretty stupid”, according to his daughter Ann Bernays, quoted in The Century of the Self, a BBC TV series by filmmaker Adam Curtis.
Bernays viewed the power of manipulation as going far beyond politics, “We are governed, our minds moulded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of”.
For most of the twentieth century, Bernays manipulated the masses for an extraordinary array of purposes on behalf of those who could afford his services.
At the heart of Bernays’ work were two core beliefs.
The first was the belief that the masses are too stupid and irrational, too swayed by emotion and impulse, to be trusted to make decisions. This, of course, was the same rationalisation used to justify colonialism and to deny the vote to women, poorer men and others.
After the First World War in most Western countries - after years of struggle - most adults were finally able to vote. This fact made the task of manipulating the masses and ensuring they did not take control, one of urgent and grave importance for Bernays and his clients.
It is striking to read Bernays candour about his views of the masses. Many in today’s elites may share his views but few would be so open about it.
The second core belief was that the insights of Sigmund Freud, the famous father of psychotherapy, could be used to effectively manipulate people on a mass scale. Freud was Bernays’ uncle. In fact as Bernays’ mother was Freud’s sister and his father was the brother of Freud’s wife, Freud was Bernays’ “double uncle”.
Bernays was particularly attracted to Freud’s view of the unconscious. Freud believed that people’s thoughts and actions are often motivated - without their being aware - by factors in their own unconscious, which they have forgotten or repressed. One expert has described the unconscious as being “guided by instinct, by the most primitive dimensions of our essence.” The emotions found there, according to Freud, are often aggressive, fearful, sexual or needy.
Whereas Freud used his knowledge to try and cure people, Bernays used the same knowledge to manipulate people by targeting their unconscious rather than their rational mind.
Ann Bernays has said her father thought the masses, “might easily vote for the wrong man or want the wrong thing: so they had to be guided from above. It’s enlightened despotism in a sense. You can tap into their deepest desires or their deepest fears and use that to your own purposes.”
Most of Bernays work was for huge corporations. He was central to an extraordinary change that happened in Western economies in the twentieth century, namely the advent of consumerism. He persuaded people to become consumers, to buy not only what they needed but what they wanted, what they desired.
An early example of Bernays’ work occurred when the giant American Tobacco company gave him the task of doubling their potential market by getting women smoking.
Bernays enlisted the help of a Freudian psychoanalyst, who suggested the cigarette was a symbol of male power. If women could see it as a symbol of their own power and independence, then they would take up smoking. Cigarettes were to be held out to women as “torches of freedom.”
Bernays organised for a number of stylish young women to take part in the Easter Sunday Parade in New York and for all to light up cigarettes at the same time on a signal from him.
Bernays ensured nationwide coverage of the women smoking under headlines, “Torches of Freedom”. Millions of women took up smoking.
Today, we are constantly exposed to appeals - in advertisements and elsewhere - which bypass our rational minds and target our unconscious.
Bernays techniques are highly effective. He was shocked when he learnt that the infamous Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, used his ideas as the basis for his campaigns. Goebbels targeted the unconscious of the German people and was terrifyingly successful in creating adoration of the Fuhrer and hatred of the Jews.
In 1954 Bernays was central to overturning a democratically elected government in Guatemala. He worked for the giant United Fruit Company and his client was very unhappy with the policies of the democratically elected President Arbenz.
Although, Arbenz was neither a Communist nor had links with the Soviet Union, Bernays convinced the American public that they faced the Communist Menace in Guatemala. He was tapping into the fear in the American people’s unconscious and accomplished this through his manipulation of the US press. In the words of a New York Times reporter, reflecting later, “A hostile and ill-informed American press helped to create an emotional public opinion. This in turn worked on [government].”
According to Larry Tye, Bernays’ biographer, “He totally understood that the coup would happen when conditions in the public and press allowed for a coup to happen and he created those conditions…Ultimately he was reshaping reality and reshaping public opinion in a way that’s undemocratic and manipulative.”
The technique used by Bernays in Guatemala - to build up an enemy and then demand its defeat - has been used on a number of occasions since 1954.
It is reported that Bernays also persuaded President Eisenhower that fear of Communism should be induced and encouraged, because by unleashing irrational fears it would make people more loyal to the USA. Some might argue that some governments exaggerate the threat of terrorism in 2018 for similar reasons.
Adam Curtis wrote that “in the 1980s, Bernays’ ideas had come of age.” This was the time when Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher started the current neoliberal era in the West.
Margaret Thatcher famously once declared, “there is no such thing as society”. This was a description of the kind of society Bernays had helped create. Many individuals had come to believe that their feelings and desires were the most important thing. They had little or no care for the wider society.
In 2016, Donald Trump came to power in a campaign that was almost textbook Bernays. Trump made no real effort to appeal to voter’s rationality. He tapped into some of the most powerful and dangerous unconscious forces, such as fear and hatred.
Bernays provided the world with an effective means of mass manipulation. So that people can be made to do what others, with money and power, want them to do: be that to buy what they don’t need or elect someone who does not represent their interests or to do the bidding of powerful leaders.
Two final Bernays quotes read as if they could have been written in a dystopian novel by George Orwell. Every day powerful people are using Bernays’ techniques. This is part of modern life. We should at the very least be more aware of what is going on. Then, perhaps, we can start to combat it.
“Universal literacy was supposed to educate the common man to control his environment…But instead of a mind, universal literacy has given him rubber stamps inked with advertising slogans, with editorials, with scientific data, with the trivialities of the tabloids and the platitudes of history, but quite innocent of original thought. Each man’s rubber stamps are the duplicates of millions of others; so that when those millions are exposed to the same stimuli, all receive identical imprints.”
“Propaganda is universal and continuous; and in its sum total it is regimenting the public mind every bit as much as an army regiments the bodies of its soldiers.”