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The Master Manipulator: Unveiling Edward Bernays' Destructive Legacy
Edward Bernays may not be a household name, but he's left his fingerprints on nearly every facet of life as we know it. In the early 1900s, he started using propaganda to shape narratives and control what people think, buy, eat, drink, etc. His work has had a negative effect on people and has caused an untold amount of suffering, harm, and loss of traditional values. It’s time to learn who Edward Bernays was and what he did so you can make informed decisions for your life instead of ones driven by propaganda.
Edward Bernays’ Influence on Propaganda
A pioneer in the field of propaganda, he is often referred to as the "father of public relations." Bernays believed that public relations is not a gimmick but a necessity. He argued that public relations could be used to shape the response of a general or particular audience. He understood that perception often mattered more than reality.
Bernays was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1891, and later, his family moved to New York City. He graduated from Cornell University with a degree in agriculture in 1912. One of Bernay’s major contributions was his groundbreaking book titled "Propaganda," published in 1928, which rebranded the term ‘propaganda’ as a consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise, idea, or group.
In it, he expounded his belief that an invisible ruling elite could control the masses through psychological manipulation. He discussed how public opinion could be swayed by appealing to people's deep emotions and ‘primal instincts’, rather than rational thought.
His book “Propaganda” also popularized the term "public relations counsel" as a euphemism for propagandists. Bernays wanted to distance himself from the negative connotations of the word ‘propaganda’.
Link to full PDF of his book, Propaganda: CLICK HERE
How Edward Bernays Used Propaganda to Influence Public Opinion
Edward Bernays used propaganda to influence public opinion in various ways.
Here are some of the techniques he used:
Influencing trusted leaders: Bernays believed that all groups have a leader, and one of his most effective propaganda techniques was to influence people by reaching out to the trusted leaders of their groups. (actors, politicians, academics, influencers, doctors, etc.)
Using subtle messaging and suggestion: He believed that people's attitudes and behaviors could be influenced by subtle messaging and subliminal suggestions.
Creating events: Bernays created events that would generate media coverage and shape public opinion.
Associating products with positive emotions: Bernays associated products with positive emotions to influence public opinion. For example, he was hired by the American Tobacco Company in the late 1920s to promote smoking among women. This campaign dramatically increased the number of female smokers.
He advised major corporations and politicians: Throughout his career, he counseled many powerful clients including Procter & Gamble, CBS, and the United Fruit Company. He was a consultant for several U.S. presidents, including Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
He also led a successful PR campaign on behalf of the Beech-Nut Packing Company and the American Egg Board to make bacon and eggs a staple breakfast food. He is responsible for making bacon and eggs a quintessential American breakfast.
Bernays' techniques were influential in shaping public opinion and are still used today in advertising, public relations, politics, and much more.
Bernays revolutionized the advertising industry by realizing the power of appealing to people's emotions (aka manipulation). He understood that by tapping into desires, fears, and aspirations, he could shape people’s actions and decisions. He introduced concepts like "consumerism" and "lifestyle branding," turning everyday products into symbols of status and identity.
Bernays knew that by associating a product with a certain ideal, people would be more inclined to buy it. He also developed political propaganda and smear campaigns and pioneered the use of psychology to manipulate public opinion against political figures and groups. Some of his unethical propaganda efforts contributed to the overthrow of foreign governments. For example, he was hired by the United Fruit Company to promote the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Guatemala in 1954. He used propaganda to create a negative image of the Guatemalan government and convince the American public that the overthrow was necessary.
How Ethical Were His Methods?
Edward Bernays' methods of using propaganda to influence public opinion have rightly been criticized for being unethical. For example, Bernays staged a parade of women smoking cigarettes during the 1929 Easter Day Parade in New York City to promote smoking among women. He associated cigarettes with the idea of women's liberation to make smoking more socially acceptable for women. Critics argue that Bernays' campaign to promote smoking among women was unethical because it put women's health at risk.
Bernays wasn’t just good at marketing, he knew what he was doing. He deliberately set out to control the minds of the masses for the benefit of an ‘invisible government’. The following is an excerpt from Propaganda:
The Aluminum Industry's Secret Weapon: Edward Bernays and Fluoride
Bernays played a significant role in promoting the use of fluoride in the United States by convincing dentists to agree to market fluoride. His expertise in mass persuasion and manipulation of public opinion was instrumental in garnering support for the fluoridation of public water supplies.
Due to his ability to craft a compelling narrative that would sway the American public in favor of water fluoridation, Bernays was hired by the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) to promote the use of fluoride in water (fluoride is a waste product of aluminum, atomic bomb waste, and fertilizer production).
He convinced dentists to endorse the use of fluoride by making them believe that it would prevent tooth decay. However, critics argue that Bernays' campaign was unethical because it downplayed the potential health risks of fluoride.
They also faced widespread skepticism and opposition from a public that was wary of government intervention and potentially harmful chemical additives in the drinking water supply.
“Studies on the health effects and safety of fluoride have always used pharmaceutical grade fluoride—not the far more toxic hydrofluorosilicic acid from the phosphate fertilizer industry. Until very recently, there has been no interest in studying the effects of the continued use of hydrofluorosilicic acid.”(Source)
Leveraging his understanding of human psychology and his ability to shape public perception, Bernays launched an aggressive campaign that positioned fluoride as a critical component of good oral hygiene. He skillfully associated the chemical with respected authorities such as dentists, scientists, and trusted public health organizations while emphasizing its benefits for children's dental health. Procter & Gamble, a company Bernays worked with, patented the formula for the first fluoride toothpaste.
To reinforce the message and dispel any lingering doubts, Bernays enlisted celebrities, doctors, and influential individuals to endorse fluoridation. He successfully generated media buzz around the topic by orchestrating press conferences, penning articles for popular publications, and ensuring that proponents of fluoride received ample coverage. As a result, his efforts shifted the national conversation on fluoride from one marked by fear and suspicion to one centered on scientific progress and improved public health.
The Sigmund Freud Connection
Edward Bernays was related to Sigmund Freud. Bernays was Freud's nephew, and his mother was Freud's sister. Bernays grew up in Vienna, Austria where he learned all about Freud's theories on human behavior. Bernays often referenced his uncle and his relationship to him, creating the impression that he had a ‘special’ understanding of human psychology and behavior by virtue of that family connection. He used this connection to Freud to promote himself as an expert in the field of public relations. Bernays' relationship with his uncle Sigmund influenced his work in several ways. He combined Freud's psychoanalytic ideas with public relations to shape public opinion. He created effective propaganda campaigns by using Freud’s theories on human behavior to promote products and shape consumer culture. For example, he used Freud's theories on human desires to convince people to buy products they didn't need.
As you may know, Freud believed the myth of Evolution and operated off the assumption we came from monkeys and have little control over our mental facilities. In case you missed it, you can learn about the dark origins of Darwinism here:
Overall, Bernays' relationship with his Uncle Freud played a significant role in shaping his ideas on public relations and propaganda. Bernays applied Freud's ideas on individual psychology to group psychology. He believed that people's attitudes and behaviors could be influenced by group dynamics and that propaganda could be used to shape group behavior.
Specific Ideas Bernays Borrowed From Freud's Theories
Some of the ideas Edward Bernays borrowed from Sigmund Freud's theories on human behavior, included the belief that people's desires and behaviors are driven by irrational forces, which he saw as an opportunity to manipulate for power and profit.
Bernays involved the ‘concept of the unconscious mind’. We’ve all heard of subliminal messaging, and Bernays believed that people's unconscious minds could be influenced by propaganda and that propaganda could be used to shape public opinion.
The ‘concept of repression’ was used by Bernays who believed that people's desires and impulses could be repressed and redirected through propaganda.
Finally, he embraced the idea that people could be manipulated without their awareness, that is, against their will. Bernays hypothesized that by understanding the group mind, it would be possible to manipulate people's behavior without them even realizing it.
His principles of persuasive communication and understanding the psychology of mass audiences have undoubtedly contributed to the evolution of marketing and public relations strategies, which are often employed by companies like Netflix in the modern media landscape.
Marc Randolph, the co-founder and former CEO of Netflix, is the great-nephew of Edward Bernays.
(Video warning: language)
Edward Bernays, hailed as the "Father of Public Relations", has left an indelible mark on society through his insightful exploitation of propaganda. Businesses dedicate massive amounts of resources to understanding consumer behavior, demographic targeting, and developing carefully crafted advertising campaigns. They use similar tactics as Bernays did decades ago—triggering emotions and desires that encourage people to buy products or adopt certain beliefs.
Political parties structure their messaging and marketing around public sentiment rather than focusing solely on policy details. They exploit fears or desires to garner support or oppose their rivals. This manipulation can often create a divide within society based on emotions rather than factual discourse.
Social media platforms also embody Bernays' ideas on propaganda and manipulation. With social media algorithms designed to maximize user engagement, tapping into emotional reactions has never been easier. Sadly, clickbait and more and more outrageous behavior are becoming normalized in a bid for the public’s attention.
Just as Bernays ‘removed the guilt’ from housewives by adding instructions to “just add an egg” to boxed cake mixes in order for them to feel like they were still “baking” for their family, our phones have “removed the guilt” of consequences by giving us the ability to access all sorts of knowledge of good and evil with a single swipe of a finger.
The lasting impact of Edward Bernays on society is impossible to overstate. His theories on propaganda and psychological manipulation permeate almost every aspect of modern marketing and communications. From politics to products, and from print ads to social media algorithms, Bernays' shadow continues to loom over a society that remains vulnerable to emotionally driven decision-making processes. As we grapple with complex issues in the 21st century, understanding and reflecting on Bernays' influence and asking God for guidance and discernment to recognize propaganda and not become a casualty of it, is key to breaking free from the unrelenting hold of consumerism and falsehoods.
Christians are called to speak the truth, to be set apart from the ways of the world, and not deceive or manipulate others. Let’s focus on the powerful instructions Jesus gave in Matthew 5:13-14: “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
Let us remember to glorify the Father in all we do, in a world that seeks to glorify itself.
Today, we live in a world heavily influenced by Edward Bernays. From the way we buy products to the way we perceive politicians, his legacy is everywhere. So, the next time you find yourself making a choice or forming an opinion, take a moment to consider…is it really your opinion?
I want to bring to your attention a documentary series that aired on the BBC in 2002. This is an excellent series (specifically parts 1 and 2) to show to any “mainstream” friends or family who have yet to grasp the fact we are being sold and lied to.
It discusses how people like Bernays’ shifted our focus from community to self. We no longer only bought things we needed, but things we were told we wanted. This shift created a self-centered, pleasure-driven, egocentric culture.
The Century of the Self: Happiness Machines (part 1) and The Engineering of Consent (part 2) can be found below or on YouTube. This documentary explores the manipulation of public opinion and the concept of "engineering consent." They delve into the work of Edward Bernays and his psychological techniques that influenced public behavior and shaped consumer culture. They highlight the use of propaganda and advertising to create desires and mold societal attitudes, ultimately serving the interests of corporations and those in power.
Part 1: The Century of the Self: Happiness Machines
Part 2: The Century of the Self: The Engineering of Consent
Thank you for reading and sharing,
“Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world.”
(1 John 4:4 KJV)
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