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The Boston Phoenix Stunt Man

Edward Bernays loved nothing better than influencing public opinion -- especially when it came to his role in history.

By Nicholas Patterson

SEPTEMBER 21, 1998: 

THE FATHER OF SPIN: EDWARD L. BERNAYS AND THE BIRTH OF PUBLIC RELATIONS, by Larry Tye. Crown  Publishers, 306 pages, $27.50.

The most effective publicity campaign in the long career of PR pioneer Edward Bernays, who died three years ago in Cambridge at the age of 103, may have been the one to have himself proclaimed the "father of his public relations." So suggests Boston Globe reporter Larry Tye in The Father of Spin, which chronicles Bernays's professional and personal life from his early days representing the opera star Enrico Caruso to his revolutionary work advising Big Tobacco, American presidents, and the United Fruit Company.

Although Bernays did not invent public relations and was not completely responsible for its development, Tye argues that he was one of its most capable and influential champions. The key to his success was what Tye calls Big Think: "hired to sell a product or service, he instead sold whole new ways of behaving, which appeared obscure but over time reaped huge rewards for his clients and redefined the very texture of American life."

One of the best examples of this tactic was Bernays's campaign for Lucky Strikes cigarettes in the years following World War I. At the end of the war, George Washington Hill, head of the American Tobacco Company, hired Bernays to help him win over the huge potential female market for Lucky Strikes. To accomplish this, Bernays went about "crystallizing public opinion" among women in favor of smoking through a covert campaign that tied cigarettes to health, beauty, and feminism. To support Hill's slogan, "Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet," he enlisted experts in the fashion and health industries to write about the benefits of slimness and the dangers of sugar. And after perceiving that there was a social taboo against women's smoking in public, Bernays had his secretary, Bertha Hunt, organize a group of young New York socialites to march down Fifth Avenue smoking cigarettes on Easter in 1929. The ensuing news stories about the "Torches of Freedom" march, which did not mention Hunt's occupation or employer, led to similar demonstrations in other cities and helped change public perceptions about women smokers.

In this and other campaigns, Tye explains, Bernays gained an edge over his competitors -- and helped reshape the way the publicity industry was run -- by drawing on the discipline of psychoanalysis to understand the market. The nephew of Sigmund Freud, Bernays skillfully used psychological theory to manipulate the consuming public.

But Bernays didn't stop there: he applied his ideas to influence wars, political campaigns, government policy, and the public image of countries including Lithuania, India, and Israel. (A cruel irony for the Jewish Bernays was that Joseph Goebbels used his 1923 book on the practice, principles, and ethics of public relations, Crystallizing Public Opinion, "as a basis for his destructive campaign against the Jews of Germany.") Bernays's most infamous success in the political realm was his propaganda campaign on behalf of United Fruit (now Chiquita Banana) against the liberal Guatemalan government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán. This campaign played a significant part in the CIA's decision to initiate the coup that ended Arbenz's regime.

In Tye's well-researched and balanced account, Bernays emerges as a complex, inconsistent, and sometimes hypocritical man. A workaholic whose mercurial temper, ego, and drive for perfection made him difficult to work or live with, he nevertheless provided many of his employees with invaluable work experience and provided for his family, both emotionally and financially, as best as he knew how. He was also a vocal proponent of ethics in public relations. Yet he often did not follow this tenet himself, as his work on behalf of tobacco and United Fruit makes clear. Although in public he extolled the health benefits of smoking, he must have known he was misleading the public: at home he worked hard to get his wife, Doris, to quit. Tye quotes their daughter, the novelist Anne Bernays, recalling that when her father found Doris's cigarettes, "he'd pull them all out and just snap them like bones, just snap them in half and throw them in the toilet. He hated her smoking."

Tye is just as evenhanded in his assessment of Bernays's true role in the evolution of public relations. Bernays, he points out, benefited from outliving -- and thus out-talking -- his contemporaries, which often allowed him to overemphasize the success and influence of his theories and campaigns. Still, Tye argues, his contributions were undeniable: "He saw the big picture when few others did, and he was the first to appreciate the nexus between theory and practice. . . . And in doing so he was the first to demonstrate for future generations of PR people how powerful their profession could be in shaping America's economic, political, and cultural life."


Nicholas Patterson is on staff at the Boston Phoenix.


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