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“The secret of my influence has always been that it remained secret”*…



Edward Bernays, second right, with other delegates of the Committee on Public Information to the Paris Peace Talks, 1917


Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, began his professional life as a press agent.  But with the advent of World War I, he found his true calling when he served on the Committee on Public Information, the war-time propaganda office, in the Wilson administration.  After the armistice, he took his experience in shaping public opinion, as guided by his uncle’s emerging theories, into the private sector, helping to establish “public relations” (and later modern advertising) as professions…

Bernays’ methods… opened a new chapter in public relations, a profession that he and others pioneered in the 1920s. Bernays was not the first man in the field. There were a handful of others before and beside him, notably his great rival Ivy Lee. Bernays, however, may have had the greatest impact. He bolstered the new profession with theory, gave it a philosophical framework and processed the findings of the blossoming psychological disciplines by coming up with new methods of manipulating the public. Although practically invisible to the outside world, Bernays became an influential architect of modern mass persuasion techniques, which continue to inspire the PR industry. Harold Burson, CEO of Burson-Marsteller, one of the world’s largest PR enterprises, was quoted in the 1990s as saying: ‘We’re still singing off the hymn book that Bernays gave us.’

Bernays was related to Sigmund Freud on two sides: Freud’s sister Anna was Bernays’ mother and his father Ely, a grain merchant, was the brother of Freud’s wife Martha. Bernays was born in Vienna in 1891 and emigrated to the US with his parents a year later. He was to die on March 9th, 1995 at the age of 103 in Massachusetts. Another member of the Freud family followed in his footsteps: Matthew Freud, who is considered one of Britain’s most successful PR men.

Influenced by his famous uncle, with whom he corresponded regularly, Bernays got to understand the power of the unconscious, of universal longings, of emotions and instinct. He exploited them for whatever he had to sell: artificial flowers, racehorses, gramophones, politicians, ideologies. No matter what it was, he often worked according to a certain dramaturgy, which his biographer Larry Tye described thus: ‘He generated events, the events generated news, and the news generated a demand for whatever he happened to be selling.’ In Bernays’ eyes, generating events was one of if not the most important task of a PR adviser. He himself labelled it as the ‘creation of circumstances’, the staging of apparently spontaneous events to influence people’s behaviour, according to the wishes of the clients. This was genuinely innovative, because until then business advertising was relatively straightforward: extolling the product and its functional advantages. Bernays, by contrast, aimed at the unconscious and trusted in the indirect method. ‘It’s like shooting billiards’, he once pointed out, ‘where you bounce the ball off cushions, as opposed to pool, where you aim directly for the pockets.’…

More on the uncanny ability to mould public desire that made Edward Bernays one of the 20th century’s most influential – yet invisible – characters, the architect of modern mass manipulation: “The Original Influencer.”

And for more, both on Bernays and on the world that he did so much to create, see Adam Curtis’ award-winning documentary Century of Self.  It’s available in four hour-long “chapters” or here, in its entirety.  Either way, it’s eminently worthy of a watch:

* Salvador Dali


As we muse on our motives, we might spare a thought for a man who had absolutely no time for lies of any sort, Immanuel Kant; he died on this date in 1804.  One of the central figures of modern philosophy, Kant is remembered primarily for his efforts to unite reason with experience (e.g., Critique of Pure Reason [Kritik der reinen Vernunft], 1781), and for his work on ethics (e.g., Metaphysics of Morals [Die Metaphysik der Sitten], 1797) and aesthetics (e.g., Critique of Judgment [Kritik der Urteilskraft], 1790).  But he made important contributions to mathematics and astronomy as well; for example: Kant’s argument that mathematical truths are a form of synthetic a priori knowledge was cited by Einstein as an important early influence on his work.  And his description of the Milky Way as a lens-shaped collection of stars that represented only one of many “island universes,” was later shown to be accurate by Herschel.

There is … only a single categorical imperative and it is this: Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

– Chapter 11, Metaphysics of Morals



Written by LW

February 12, 2019 at 1:01 am

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