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Who Predicted the Toxic Psyche of the Digital Age Better—Sigmund Freud or His Nephew Eddie?
Meet the first Scientist of Spin, who left Vienna to manipulate public opinion in the United States
Freud’s reputation has taken quite a tumble since I first studied his works in the 1970s. A backlash was inevitable, if only due to the extraordinary claims made for his theories—which not only promised to explain the human condition, but even offered to cure previously incurable ailments.
My concern here, however, is not with Freud, but his nephew Eddie.
That may seem like a strange topic for an article. But I’d argue that the nephew offers more insights into our current situation than even his formidable uncle.
Edward L. Bernays, nephew of the great Viennese therapist, is hardly a household name. But his impact can be detected everywhere—spanning politics, business, consumer behavior, world affairs, and especially digital age relationships.
Bernays liked to brag about his ties to Sigmund Freud, and it was no empty boast. Their connections ran deep, and on many levels. Freud was brother to Bernays’s mother, and Freud’s wife was sister to his father. When Bernays’s parents departed Vienna, they even left his two older sisters in the care of Freud and his family while they got established in New York. As a young man, Eddie Bernays reconnected with this famous uncle, spending time with him during a long European visit. He later recounted stories about their long walks in the woods.
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At the dawn of his career, Bernays would have been called a publicist, with special emphasis on arts and culture. He helped build a US audience for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and the legendary Italian tenor Enrico Caruso. Most media professionals would have been pleased with a successful career of this sort, hobnobbing with artists and socialites. But Bernays was fascinated with the extreme limits of how public attitudes were shaped. In time, he shifted from publicist to propagandist—you might even say he wrote the book on propaganda. In fact, if anyone deserves the title of the Inventor of Spin—or even what we now call Fake News—it’s Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays.
“Bernays was still seeing clients—who paid $1,000 per hour for a consultation—up until two days before his death at age 103. By comparison his uncle Sigmund Freud rarely got more than ten dollars per session.”
The word propaganda was hardly used back in those days. It originated from the Vatican’s attempts to rebut Protestantism with “propagation” of the authorized faith of the Church of Rome. But the rise of Marxism gave the word new momentum in the early 20th century—in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, propaganda got enlisted as a tool in the class struggle. But Bernays believed that everyone needed propaganda, even (or perhaps especially) capitalists and politicians in democratic societies.
Perhaps the hardest thing for an outsider to grasp is how proud Bernays was to be a propagandist. He complained about the negative connotations of the term. In the words of one commentator, “Bernays sold the myth of propaganda as a wholly rational endeavor, carried out methodically by careful experts….Consistently he cases himself as a supreme manipulator, mastering the responses of a pliable, receptive population.”
Bernays even published a book of propaganda on the behalf of propaganda. There’s a true believer for you! Here’s the opening paragraph, which is shocking to anyone who comes to this book expecting an exposé of evil propagandists. Bernays has a very different attitude towards such matters:
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized 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.
Why would anyone say this openly? Even if you were proud of your skills in manipulating people, wouldn’t you keep quiet about it?
But Bernays was in an awkward situation—he wanted to make money by selling his services to the rich and powerful, so he had to be brutally honest about what he really did. That’s why his book Propaganda is so unsettling to read. It’s a kind of advertising for things normally left unsaid. Yet for that same reason, it’s one of the most revealing works of the 20th century.
Just consider the range of techniques pursued by Bernays almost a century ago, and see how common they have become in our own time.
“Few stunts in the history of public relations are stranger—or more revealing—than Ed Bernays’s 1934 campaign on behalf of the color green. I’m not joking. Bernays actually worked to establish the dominance of a new hue, and it was the same color as money.”
(1) The illusion of the independent expert: Bernays developed a close relationship with the tobacco industry in the 1920s, and played a key role in marketing cigarettes to women. But he used outside experts at every turn to push his message—these paid puppets explained how tobacco helped women lose weight, look better, and appear more independent.
Bernays even drew on the famous dance teacher Arthur Murray, who indicated that the slimmer figures resulting from smoking would look and move better on the dance floor. Other tobacco companies started imitating this approach, and soon singers from the Metropolitan Opera were enlisted for testimonials on how smoking improved their voices—a ludicrous claim, we now know, but that didn’t seem to matter. Newspapers and magazines willingly promoted this junk science, because it made for a good story.
The key behind all this was the appearance of independence. The advocacy never came from cigarette companies but, rather, from experts with credibility and carefully distanced from the original source of the message.
(2) A focus on identifying and controlling influencers: Of course, the term influencer didn’t exist back in Bernays’s time, but he clearly understood the concept. He called these individuals “molders of public opinion,” and made it his job to know who they were and how to manage them. By his estimate there were several thousand people of this sort in the United States in the 1920s. He boasted that these people seemed independent, but could be controlled by “shrewd persons operating behind the scenes.” Bernays saw himself as the chief of these canny operators, or what we might today call the influencer behind the influencers.
(3) The phony grass roots movement: Few stunts in the history of public relations are stranger—or more revealing—than Ed Bernays’s 1934 campaign on behalf of the color green. I’m not joking. Bernays actually worked to establish the dominance of a new hue, and it was the same color as money.
He channeled his efforts through an army of grassroots influencers (as we would call them today), including interior decorators, arts professionals, fashion editors, home furnishing buyers, merchandising managers at retail stores, and other individuals who might determine color choices. By the time he was done, it seemed like the whole country had just gone gaga for anything green.
Today this approach is called astro-turfing, a movement that looks like it’s happening at the grassroots level but is actually orchestrated from above. That term also didn’t exist until 1985. The fact that Bernays could pull it off in the 1930s with something as arbitrary as a color stands out as a major milestone in the manipulation of public opinion.
(4) Treating social and political issues as marketing problems: There was a widespread view back in the 1920s and 1930s—perhaps naive and wrong-headed, but nonetheless pervasive—that political and social questions could be resolved by honest, open debate based on facts and research. In 1925, the National Speech & Debate Association was established, and six years later the first national tournament took place. Schools and colleges around the United States set up debating teams, clubs, and classes. These forums were widely viewed as the quintessential platforms for good citizenship and democracy in action.
But during this period, Bernays developed a very different plan for addressing these same issues with marketing techniques, drawing on emotional and ideological levers rather than clear-headed and reasoned debate. As a young man, he had been involved in organizing press coverage for the Paris Peace Conference that concluded World War I, and it convinced him that global historical events were within the range of his techniques of persuasion.
Bernays’s writings and indefatigable activities are filled with anticipations of the future. Probably the only significant tool for public manipulation he failed to anticipate was the rise of the Internet. But can you imagine what he would have done with digital platforms at his disposal? Edward Bernays would have been the master of bots, click farms, memes, viral videos, mass emailings, online petitions, and every other form of digital opinion-shaping. To his credit (if credit is, in fact, the right term), he had already figured out how to do all those things in an analog world.
Edward Bernays almost lived long enough to participate in this next phase in the propaganda game. He died on March 9, 1995 at age 103, and was still seeing clients—who paid $1,000 per hour for a consultation—up until two days before his death. (By comparison, his uncle Sigmund Freud rarely got more than ten dollars for a session, which even after adjusting for inflation, falls far behind his nephew’s rates.) A few weeks later, Amazon and eBay would launch their web businesses, and Netscape would enjoy the first major Internet IPO exactly five months after Bernays’s passing.
But if he didn’t get a chance to try his hand at digital age manipulation, Bernays could hardly complain that others didn’t learn his lessons and apply them on the web. Perhaps he didn’t come up with the Oedipal Complex or the Id-Ego-Superego triad, or the other mind-bending concepts of his illustrious uncle. But as progenitor of fake news and hidden influencers, he had an arsenal of tools even better suited for the 21st century.
So, for my money, Bernays is the member of the Freud family you really ought to study nowadays. He was the first genuine Scientist of Spin, and more things are spinning today than ever before. Or, put differently, his uncle may have put on a white coat and operated out of a doctor’s office, but in the 21st century there are far more practitioners of Bernays’s form of analysis. The fact that they rarely mention his name is, in this case, all the more reason to take him seriously.