When I began the research for this book-attempting to discover the social and historical roots that would explain the limitless role of public relations in our world-one of my first stops along the way was a sojourn with Edward L. Bernays, a man who, beginning during the 1910s, became one of the most influential pioneers of American public relations; a person whose biography, though not widely known, left a deep mark on the configuration of our world.
Born in Vienna in 1891, Bernays was the double nephew of Sigmund Freud. (His mother was Freud's sister, his father was Freud's wife's brother.) His family background impressed him with the enormous power of ideas, and accustomed him to the privileges and creature comforts of bourgeois existence.
Bernays was also a far-sighted architect of modern propaganda techniques who, dramatically, from the early 1920s onward, helped to consolidate a fateful marriage between theories of mass psychology and schemes of corporate and political persuasion.
During the First World War, Bernays served as a foot soldier for the U. S. Committee on Public Information (CPI)-the vast American propaganda apparatus mobilized in 1917 to package, advertise and sell the war as one that would "Make the World Safe for Democracy." The CPI would become the mold in which marketing strategies for subsequent wars, on to the present, would be shaped.
In the twenties, Bernays fathered the link between corporate sales campaigns and popular social causes, when-while working for the American Tobacco Company-he persuaded women's rights marchers in New York City to hold up Lucky Strike cigarettes as symbolic "Torches of Freedom." In October of 1929, Bernays also originated the now familiar "global media event," when he dreamed up "Light's Golden Jubilee," a worldwide celebratory spectacle commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the electric light bulb, sponsored-behind-the-scenes-by the General Electric Corporation.
While by birth an Austrian Jew, Bernays' work and vivid writings served as an inspiration for Dr. Joseph Goebbels, the notorious Nazi propaganda minister-or so public relations folklore records.
Bernays influence would continue to hold sway well into the post-World War II era. To put it simply, Edward Bernays' career-more than that of any other individual-roughed out what have become the strategies and practices of public relations in the United States.
I had encountered Bernays before. In the early 1970s, while writing a book on the social history of advertising-Captains of Consciousness-I had happened upon some of his writings-mostly from the 1920s. In the pages of Captains he fittingly looms as an eloquent and influential ideologue of an American consumer culture in formation.
Then, in the mid-1980s, while working on another book (All Consuming Images), I again ran into Mr. Bernays. This time it was primarily through his writings from the forties and fifties, when-as an enduring student of mass persuasion-he helped to educate political leaders on the uses of the mass media, and to the particular advantages of visual symbols as instruments for what he christened the "engineering of consent." Once more, through the agency of his fertile and suggestive writings, Bernays had emerged as a leading character in one of my manuscripts.
Both times my encounters with Bernays were like those that usually take place between historians and the "historical figures" that they write about. They were exchanges between old documents and the inquiring mind of their reader and interpreter. As I commenced work on my social history of public relations early in 1990, I assumed, reasonably, that Bernays, himself, was long gone. Once more, the picturesque record that he had left behind was as close as I was likely to get to him.
Soon, however, I stumbled onto the fact that my reasonable assumption was incorrect. In a conversation with a neighbor of mine named Richard Weiner-who is, himself, a prominent member of the public relations fraternity-I learned that Bernays was, in fact, still alive, residing in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Weiner instructed me: "If you're going to do this book, you've got to talk to Eddie Bernays." I was astonished and delighted to hear Bernays referred to in the present tense; I was also amused to hear him referred to as "Eddie." Behind the aura of historical figure, stood a guy called Eddie. I obtained Bernays' telephone number and set out to arrange an interview. He was then on the brink of his ninety-ninth birthday, and I didn't know what to expect. Would he see me? Would he be enfeebled? He was very old.
An exploratory call to Bernays reached an answering machine. A woman's voice, official
in tone, informed me that I had reached the offices of "Dr. Edward L. Bernays," and that
"Dr. Bernays" was currently unavailable. I was instructed to leave a message. For a man of
almost 100, Bernays was still communicating an air of business-as-usual. I told the
My name is Stuart Ewen. I am an historian, a writer. I'm currently working on a book on the social history of public relations. I would very much like to come to Cambridge, to visit with 'Dr. Bernays' in order to conduct an oral history interview. I left my phone number, and indicated that, should I not hear back from him shortly, I would call again. Two days later, I received a phone call at home from Edward Bernays.
It felt weird, like a dream. Given my experience tracking his historical footprints, it was like talking-via dixie cups and a string-with a piece of history. His voice was soft, a bit hoarse, the voice of an elderly man, to be sure, but he also sounded deft and businesslike.
He asked me about myself, my background, where I taught, the book I was writing. I told him that I was a cultural historian, with a particular interest in the ways that the mass media have crisscrossed with the experiences of twentieth century American life. I told him that I knew a great deal about him, his life and contributions, and added that I had recently published a book exploring the influence of commercial imagery on the contours of American society. Without missing a beat Edward Bernays retorted, scrappily, "Of course, you know, we don't deal in images....We deal in reality."
My fascinating encounter with Edward L. Bernays had begun. I had already been offered a lesson from the master. Ideally, the job of public relations is not simply one of disseminating favorable images and impressions for a client. For Bernays and, as I would learn, for many others in the field, the goal was far more ambitious than that. Public relations was about fashioning and projecting credible renditions of reality itself.
Rather than pursue the interview by telephone-I wanted to meet him, face-to-face-I arranged to visit Edward Bernays at his home, on Columbus Day of 1990. In the weeks preceding our scheduled meeting, I refamiliarized myself with some of his writings: Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923); Propaganda (1928); "The Engineering of Consent" (1947); and his autobiography, Biography of an Idea: Memoirs of Public Relations Counsel Edward L. Bernays (1965). I also looked at a few writings I'd never read before: books, some short pamphlets and speeches. Bernays, meanwhile, sought to put his own spin on the forthcoming interview. He sent me a photocopy of a biographical piece about him that had appeared recently in a special issue of Life magazine, listing the 100 most influential Americans of the twentieth century.
On the chill, gray morning of October 12, 1990, I took the shuttle from LaGuardia to Logan Airport in Boston, leaving myself enough time to arrive at Bernays' home for our scheduled one o'clock interview. Crossing the Charles River into Cambridge, the cab took me toward a maze of old, tree-lined streets bordering Harvard Square, stopping by the large red number "7" that Bernays had informed me marked his house. The house itself was stately, a large white wood-frame, surrounded by some hedges, unpretentious. Walking up the path to the door, I did not know what to expect.
I rang the doorbell and waited for an answer. A minute or two passed, and there was none. Not a sound. Had he forgotten? Was the apparent wit with which he had spoken to me on the phone only illusory? I rang again, and waited. Then, after another minute or so had passed and I had begun to grow disconsolate, I heard soft footsteps moving slowly toward the door. "Bernays?" I thought. Instead, a Chinese woman, of middle age, opened the door a crack and said, "Yes?" I told her who I was; that I had, a couple of weeks before, scheduled an interview for this afternoon with Mr. Bernays.
She looked at me quizzically, then muttered something about his having been ill yesterday. Inviting me into the house, and directing me to wait in the first floor library, she disappeared to inquire whether he was up to seeing me.
As I waited, I inspected the shelves of the spacious, high-ceilinged room in which I stood. It was a remarkable collection of books, thousands of them: about public opinion, individual and social psychology, survey research, propaganda, psychological warfare, and so forth; a comprehensive library spanning matters of human motivation and strategies of influence, scanning a period of more than one hundred years. These were not the bookshelves of some shallow huckster, but the arsenal of an intellectual. The cross-hairs of nearly every volume were trained on the target of forging public attitudes. Here -in a large white room in Cambridge, Massachusetts-was the constellation of ideas that had inspired and informed a twentieth century preoccupation: the systematic molding of public opinion.
Captured in thought, I suddenly heard steps moving swiftly toward the library door. Assuming it was the Chinese woman again, to report on Bernays' condition, I braced myself for bad news. But as the door swung open, there-standing before me in a comfy-looking brown, three-piece suit and tie, and transmitting a sparkle through his wizened eyes-was a puckish little man with thin, shaggy white hair. The swift steps I'd heard were those of Edward L. Bernays, moving toward the threshold of his one-hundredth year. Despite years of pondering him as a shrewd and cynical manipulator of public consciousness, I was immediately entranced. His physical countenance reminded me of pictures I had seen of an aged Albert Einstein. He moved toward me and, with smiles, we exchanged formal introductions. "I want you to have this," I said, and handed him an inscribed copy of my last book, All Consuming Images, which he accepted with a nod. He then instructed me that we should go upstairs, to his office, for the interview.
He led me to the bottom of a tall staircase. On the left side there was a
chair-elevator, the kind one associates with wealthy invalids in the movies. "You ever
ride on one of these things?" he asked me.
"No, I've only seen them in pictures," I responded frankly.
"Get on!" he commanded me, like an elfin carny beside an amusement park ride.
I turned around and sat down, my feet resting on a metal platform at the base of the chair. "Move your feet." he ordered.
"Move your feet back."
Without understanding I drew my feet to the back of the platform, leaving a narrow ledge in front of them. Suddenly, he stepped onto the ledge, his small pear-shaped body hovering over mine. "Should I hold you?" I asked, concerned for his frail bones.
"No," he responded dismissively, as he pushed a button on the side of the chair, and we glided up together and, turning a slight corner toward the end of the voyage, arrived on the second story. At the summit of the climb, Bernays hopped off onto the landing, and I-somewhat shakily-proceeded off behind him. "We don't deal with images," I thought, "we deal in reality."
He led me through a dark room off the landing. Its walls were covered with scores of framed black and white photographs, many of them inscribed. Wordlessly, yet eloquently, the pictures placed my ancient host close to the heartbeat of a century. Bernays on his way to the Paris Peace Conference, 1918. Bernays standing with Enrico Caruso. Bernays and Henry Ford. Bernays and Thomas Edison. Bernays and Dwight David Eisenhower. A photo portrait of his uncle, Freud, was also conspicuous. Bernays with the "great men," at the "great events" of the twentieth century. I looked ...awestruck. He said nothing. In silence, I was fascinated, entranced by it all.
From the photo gallery, we stepped into his small office, a solarium, and took seats by a cluttered desk. We began to talk. He began by asking me questions: about myself, my background, what had attracted me to his work in particular, and-more generally-to the broader study of communications in twentieth century America.
I opened with a rhetorical response."How can you deal with 20th century culture
without dealing with...?"
"...the basis of the exchange of ideas that makes the culture," he completed my thought.
Coming from very different vantage points, from different epochs, we understood each other. He knew what I was looking for. Within my historical study of public relations, I sought to make sense of the the peculiar processes of representation and perception-the "exchange of ideas," as he put it-that have come to distinguish cultural life in the era of mass communication.
The next four hours were vintage Edward Bernays. Again and again I heard word-for-word reiterations of themes, stories, even specific catch phrases that I had encountered many times before in his writings.
None the less, beyond the actual experience of meeting with Bernays, some parts of the interview were new to me, contributing to the scope and texture of the history that follows. I was particularly intrigued, for example, by Bernays' reflections on the connection between his own thinking and that of Walter Lippmann, who published a book entitled Public Opinion in 1922, just one year before Bernays' first public relations manifesto, Crystallizing Public Opinion, appeared. (Bernays' book, Propaganda , would later follow Lippmann's sequel to Public Opinion, The Phantom Public, by one year.) There are, however, some aspects of the interview that are worth mentioning here, aspects which reflect on the history and meaning of public relations itself.
First. Throughout the interview Bernays expressed an unabashedly hierarchical view of society. Repeatedly, he maintained that, while most people respond to their world instinctively, without thought, there exist an "intelligent few" who have been charged with the responsibility of contemplating and influencing the tide of history. Perceived by Bernays as one of these "few," he was willing to share his outlook with me in straightforward terms.
Although he had written extensively, over a lifetime, about democracy and on the important role that public relations plays in a democratic society, Bernays, himself, was clearly no democrat. He expressed little respect for the average person's ability to think out, understand, or act upon the world in which they live.
"There are strange things about the culture," he intoned. "The average IQ is 100 of the American public, did you know that?" Assuming I grasped what for him was obvious, Bernays then sketched a picture of the public relations expert as a member of the "intelligent few" who advises clients on how to "deal with the masses...just by applying psychology."
As a member of that intellectual elite which guides the destiny of society, the PR "professional," Bernays explained, aims his craft at a general public which is essentially, and unreflectively, reactive. Working behind the scenes, out of public view, the public relations expert is "an applied social scientist," one educated to employ an understanding of "sociology, psychology, social psychology and economics" in order to influence and direct public attitudes. Throughout our conversation, Bernays conveyed his hallucination of democracy: a highly educated class of opinion-molding tacticians are continuously at work, analyzing the social terrain and adjusting the mental scenery from which the public mind, with its limited intellect, derives its opinions.
Undoubtedly, this point of view offers a glimpse into Edward L. Bernays. More importantly, it reflects a foundational conceit governing the field of public relations more broadly. While some have argued that public relations represents a "two-way street" through which institutions and the public carry on a democratic dialog, the public's role within that alleged dialog is, most often, one of having its blood pressure monitored, its temperature taken.
It should be noted that Bernays, at the time of our conversation, felt that the field
of "public relations" had failed to live up to his "professional" expectations. "Today,"
he related to me with some dismay, "any nitwit or dope or anybody can call himself or
herself a public relations counsel. I had a young woman call up two months ago and she
said I hear you're nice to young people. Can I come in and see you? And I said, what do
you do? She said, ' I'm in public relations.' So I made a date with her and when she came
in-she was about 27 years old, young woman, apparently intelligent...
I said, 'What do you do?'
She said, 'I'm in public relations.'
I said, 'I didn't ask you that. I asked you what you did.'
She said, 'I give out circulars in Harvard Square.'
She was in public relations! [The term public relations] hasn't only been misused. But people have used the name for press agents, flacks, publicity men or women, individuals who simply try to get pieces into the paper that are favorable to a client. Whereas, by my definition, a public relations person, who calls themselves [sic] that, is an applied social scientist who advises a client or employer on the social attitudes and actions to take to win the support of the publics upon whom his, or her, or its viability depends."
Another phase of the interview deserves special mention. I came to visit Bernays because he was both a participant in, and a witness to, the rise of public relations over a period of nearly three-quarters of a century. Anticipating the interview, I hoped that his recollections would provide me with some new and clear sense of the particular historical soil out of which public relations, as a phenomenon, grew. In this regard I was, for the most part, frustrated.
Bernays' take on public relations was remarkable in that it tended to ignore the particular processes, or details, of the periods which had given rise to it. Throughout the interview he described public relations as a response to a trans-historic concern: the requirement, for those people in power, to shape the attitudes of the general population.
For Bernays, public relations reflected the refinement of techniques developed to serve ancient purposes. He appeared to have thought little about his life, or his field, as bearing the imprint of a specific historical era. As I prepared to depart from him, I felt a bit disappointed in this regard.
Then, as we began discussing the means by which I would get from his house back to the airport, a curious conversation unfolded. Amid a general complaint about the cost of taxicabs, and after counselling me to save my money and hop a trolley, Edward Bernays indicated that he, himself, had never learned how to drive an automobile. I expressed surprise. He explained that he had simply never had to learn to drive; among his family's train of up to thirteen servants, there was always a chauffeur. Bernays then proceeded to tell me the story of one chauffeur in particular, a man he called "Dumb Jack."
Each day, he related to me, Dumb Jack would awaken at 5 o'clock in the morning, and prepare to drive Bernays and his wife (and partner in public relations), Doris Fleishman, to the office. The trusty chauffeur would then return to the family home to carry their two daughters to school. From there, he would return to the office in order to chauffeur Bernays and his wife to business meetings throughout the day, taking time out to retrieve the daughters from their school. At the end of the day, according to Bernays, a subdued Dumb Jack would step into the kitchen and, as the cook prepared the evening meal, he would sit at a kitchen table, lay his head in his hands, and take a nap. He would go to bed at nine, only to begin his routine again the next morning at five. Comparing this situation favorably to the cost of one cab ride to the airport today, Bernays ended his story by saying that for all of this work, Dumb Jack received a salary of twenty-five dollars per week, and got a half a thursday off every two weeks.
"Not a bad deal," Bernays confided, characterizing the benefits that his family had derived from Dumb Jack's years of compliant service. Then, with a lilt of nostalgia in his voice, he concluded his story: "But that's before people got a social conscience."
At that moment, in that nostalgic reverie over a bygone era, my quest for historical explanation-or at least a piece of it-was satisfied. In an incidental reference to "social conscience," Bernays had illuminated an historic shift in the social history of property, shedding inadvertent light on the conditions which gave birth to the birth of the practice of public relations. As the twentieth century progressed, people were no longer willing to accomodate themselves to outmoded standards of deference which history, for millenia, had demanded of them.
Bernays was the child of a bourgeois world that was, in many ways, still captivated by aristocratic styles of wealth, where relations between the classes were marked, to a large extent, by deep-seated patterns of allegiance-of obedience and obligation-between masters and servants. Like Mr. Stevens (the Anthony Hopkins character) in Remains of the Day, Dumb Jack was also a child of these circumstances.
The "social conscience," to which Bernays had referred, arrived at that moment when aristocratic paradigms of deference could no longer hold up in the face of modern, democratic, public ideals that were boiling up among the "lower strata" of society. At that juncture, strategies of social rule began to change, and the life and career of Edward Bernays, I should add, serves as a testament to that change.
The explosive ideals of democracy challenged ancient customs that had long upheld social inequality. A public claiming the birthright of democratic citizenship and social justice increasingly called upon institutions and people of power to justify themselves and their privileges. In the crucible of these changes, aristocracy began to give way to technocracy as a strategy of rule. Bernays came to maturity in a society where the exigencies of power were-by necessity-increasingly exercised from behind the pretext of the "common good." Bernays, the child of aristocratic pretense who fashioned himself into a technician of mass persuasion, was the product of a "social conscience" that had grasped the fact that a once submissive Dumb Jack, in the contemporary world, would no longer be willing to quietly place his tired head in his folded hands at the end of each day, only to awaken and serve again the next morning. Born into privilege, developing into a technocrat, Bernays' biography illustrates the onus that the twentieth century has placed on social and economic elites; they have had to justify themselves continually to a public whose hearts and minds now bear the ideals of democracy.
As I pursued my research following my encounter with Bernays, and repeatedly ran into the fear of an empowered public that ignited the thinking of early practitioners of public relations, the story of "Dumb Jack"-the man who was no more-came to mind again and again, reminding me of the human flesh that encircles the bones of broad institutional developments.
Another story bears repeating here. Towards the middle of our interview, hoping that I
could gain insight into the way Bernays approached his practical work, I asked him to
describe how he would plan and attend to a specific public relations assignment. First of
all, Bernays instructed, one must rid one's mind of the conventional "press agent" image.
"We've [speaking of himself] had no direct contact with the mass media for about fifty
years." Rather, he continued, the job of a public relations counsel is to instruct a
client on how to take actions which "just interrupt...the continuity of life in some way to
bring about the [media] response."
"How would you do that?" I asked.
Bernays thought for a moment, and then turned toward his desk, where he had earlier placed the copy of my book. He picked it up and began to fondle its cover between his small, pinkish-gray fingers; glancing down at the front of the book, reading, to himself, the descriptive material and blurbs that appeared on its back. Then, with a tone of momentousness in his voice, he turned to me:
If you said to me, 'I would like more readers of this book' [tapping the cover] ...I would immediately get in touch with the largest American consumer association. And I would say to the head of the consumers association, 'There are undoubtedly...I can't tell you the exact percentage, but X percentage of your members who are very definitely interested in the images that come from a finance capitalist society, and who I think would enjoy hearing about that. Why don't you devote one of your twelve meetings a year to consumer images, the name of a new book, and I think it may be possible for me to get the author to talk to the New York meeting and you then make an arrangement with American Tel and Tel and have a video tape made of him beforehand and in thirty of the largest cities of the United States that have the American Consumer League, you listen to an in-depth concept of consumers and images....'
Then Bernays turned to me and, with an abracadabra tone in his voice, he summarized the imaginable result of his hypothetical phone-call to the head of the country's largest consumer association:
Every one of the consumer groups has contacts with the local paper, and in some cases the AP may pick it up, or Reuters, and you become an international star!
I must acknowledge that I was thoroughly charmed. Here I was, sitting with Edward Bernays-innovator and artiste of modern public relations-listening to him apply his costly wizardry to me and my book. I couldn't get over it, and thought to myself, "What a flatterer. This guy really knows how to polish up the old apple." For weeks after the interview, I was tickled by the incident, retelling it to friends, students, whoever had the patience to listen. For me the story captured Bernays' engaging personality, his ingenious thought process, his ability to garner a response.
Then, about three months after the interview-the above incident having faded from my immediate memory-I received a most surprising telephone call. It was from Steven Brobeck, president of the Consumer Federation of America, one of the nation's largest and most influential consumer organizations. Mr. Brobeck wanted to know if I would be willing to serve as a keynote speaker at the upcoming Consumer Congress in Washington, DC, a convention that would bring together more than a thousand members of consumer organizations from around the country. He wanted me to speak about American consumer culture and the ways that seductive commercial images are routinely employed to promote waste and disposability. C-Span, I was informed, would be taping my keynote, and would then cablecast it across the country.
I still do not know whether Bernays' hand was behind this invitation, or whether the phone call was merely a result of sly coincidence. When I inquired as to the origin of the invitation, nowhere was there any clear-cut, or even circumstantial, evidence of Bernays' intervention.
But then I recalled another point in our lengthy conversation, when Bernays sermonized on the invisibility with which public relations experts must, ideally, perform their handiwork.
When I noted that, even though Life magazine had included him in the list of the one hundred most influential Americans in the twentieth century, most Americans would probably no know who he was, he responded: I'm sure of it....To the average American your name has to be Walter Cronkite, or...[you have to be] the most beautiful girl... some movie actress they know.... In public relations, just as in law, you don't-nobody knows who the lawyer of most people is, and that lawyer may do more than the brain of the man who is theoretically doing it....And I think it should be that way because nobody knows who my doctor is. I mean, except friends. And he may be the basis of my living.
And there I was; the mystery still unsolved. Yet the question remained, and remains, open. Things had uncannily come to pass much as Bernays had described in his hypothetical disquisition on the work of a PR practitioner, and one was left to ponder whether there is any reality anymore, save the reality of public relations? Magnified by my seductive encounter with Edward Bernays, it is this question, and its implications for contemporary life, which stands at the heart of this book.
One last point. I had gone to Cambridge to interview Edward Bernays and gather hidden details about the history of the hidden-yet omnipresent-activity of public relations. In retrospect, I had greatly underestimated the individual with whom I would be talking. I had presupposed that this keenly aware shaper of public perception, this trader in realities, was at the same time open to being candidly cross-examined. Yet in the days following our meeting, it became clear to me that my entire visit had been orchestrated by a virtuoso.
He had even offered me the key by which the pageantry of our encounter might have been
unlocked. During the extensive taped interview that I assumed I was conducting, Bernays
had at one point turned to me, and announced:
News is any overt act which juts out of the routine of circumstance. ...A good public relations man advises his client...to carry out an overt act... interrupting the continuity of life in some way to bring about a response.
From the time I had approached the door of his house, waiting impatiently for an answer; to my ride on the staircase elevator; to my walk through the gallery of historical photographs, on to the time, five hours later, when we parted company, Edward Bernays-who still claimed to charge $1,000 per hour consulting fees-was giving me, free of charge, an empirical object lesson in public relations. Above all else that I gathered from my journey to Cambridge, this was the prime benefit of my brush with Edward Bernays; experiencing the man himself-still spry at one hundred-in action.
© 1996, Stuart Ewen