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If You're a Fan of 'Astroturfing,' You Probably Know Edward Bernays
By: Jeannine Wheeler
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Edward Bernays. You say you’ve never heard of him? If you’re in PR, you should have, and if you’re not, you’ve certainly been influenced by his ideas and his campaigns. Dubbed the “father of PR," the “Prince of Puff,” the “Baron of Ballyhoo,” this Austrian-American nephew of Sigmund Freud was an astute student of human behavior and consumerism. He waged campaigns for high-profile clients that combined audacious propaganda tactics with public stunts that changed behavior.

Bernays, who died in 1995 at the age of 103, had a client list that included American Tobacco, Ivory Soap, United Fruit, book publishers, eggs and bacon manufacturers, and the platforms of U.S. presidents from Coolidge to Eisenhower.

In The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations, Boston Globe reporter Larry Tye attributes Bernays’ success to a marketing philosophy that he terms “Big Think,” which combined high-concept publicity stunts, endorsements from doctors, national surveys, and other forms of publicity whose actual product endorsement was cleverly veiled. 

Some of his most remarkable campaigns included:
  • In 1913, Bernays was hired by the actor Richard Bennett to protect a play that supported sex education against police interference. Bernays set up a front group called the “Medical Review of Reviews, Sociological Fund” (officially concerned with fighting venereal disease) for the purpose of endorsing the play.
  • In the 1920s, working for the American Tobacco Company, he sent a group of young models to march in the New York City parade. He then told the press that a group of women’s rights marchers would light “Torches of Freedom.” On his signal, the models lit Lucky Strike cigarettes in front of the eager photographers. The New York Times (April, 1929) printed: “Group of Girls Puff at Cigarettes as a Gesture of 'Freedom'." This helped break the taboo against women smoking in public.
  • Bernays once engineered a “pancake breakfast” with vaudevillians for Calvin Coolidge in what is widely considered one of the first overt media acts for a president.
  • Bernays used his uncle Sigmund Freud’s ideas to help convince the public, among other things, that bacon and eggs was the true all-American breakfast.
  • Bernays attempted to help Venida hair nets company to get women to wear their hair longer so they would use hairnets more. The campaign failed, but did get government officials to require hairnets for some jobs.
  • Bernays worked with Proctor & Gamble for Ivory-brand bar soap. The campaign successfully convinced people that Ivory soap was medically superior to other soaps. He also promoted soap through sculpting contests and floating contests because the soap floated better than competing products.
  • Bernays helped the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) find a market for Hexafluorosilicic acid, a byproduct of aluminum production. Working on behalf of Alcoa and various special interest groups, he successfully convinced the American public that water fluoridation was safe and beneficial to human health. This was achieved by using the American Dental Association in a highly successful media campaign.
  • In the 1930s, his Dixie Cup campaign was designed to convince consumers that only disposable cups were sanitary by linking the imagery of an overflowing cup with subliminal images of vaginas and venereal disease.
  • In the 1930s, he attempted to convince women that Lucky Strike cigarettes' forest green pack was the most fashionable color. Letters were written to interior and fashion designers, department stores, and prominent women of society pushing green as the new hot color for the season. Balls, gallery exhibitions, and window displays all featured green after Bernays got through with them. The result was that green did indeed become a very hot color for the 1934 season and Lucky Strike kept their pack color and female clientele intact. 
Many of his tactics are still used today (astroturfing comes to mind), and it takes a savvy media consumer to ferret out the manipulation. We can all give a good nod to this publicity master for building some of the foundations on which we practice this art today — including the good, the bad, and the ugly.

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About the Author
Jeannine Wheeler is a PR Director who has worked in three countries, including Russia, the US and the UK. She is currently Sr. Vice President of Pure Energy PR, a full-service boutique communications firm with a focus on the energy, healthcare, technology, construction, real estate & land development, tourism & hospitality and food & beverage industries. Jeannine is in the firm's Austin, Texas office.
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