Edward L. Bernays (1891-1995), American consultant to business and government, labored to bring public relations to the status of a profession.
Edward L. Bernays was born in Vienna, Austria, on November 22, 1891. His maternal uncle was the famed psychologist Sigmund Freud. When the boy was a year old the family emigrated to New York City, where his father became a successful grain merchant. After education in the city's schools, Edward enrolled in the Agricultural College of Cornell University. The elder Bernays had hopes that his son would one day join him on the grain exchange, but by the time of Edward's graduation from Cornell in 1912 he had decided to pursue a career as a journalist.
Bernays became editor of the Medical Review of Reviews in New York City. In 1913 he learned that the actor Richard Bennet planned to produce "Damaged Goods," a play warning of the dangers of venereal disease. But the controversial nature of the subject was making it difficult for Bennet to raise funds for the project. Bernays volunteered to help. He set up a "Sociological Fund Committee" to finance the production and rally public support. Bernays enlisted so many of the city's notables to the cause that no one—not even the censors—could question the total respectability of the play. "Damaged Goods" opened without incident and was hailed as a valuable contribution to public awareness. Bernays had found a new career.
From 1913 to 1917 Bernays worked as a publicist for theatrical productions and promoted the appearances of such artists as Enrico Caruso and the Diaghilev ballet company. When the United States entered World War I Bernays offered his services to the government's Committee on Public Information. The committee, headed by ex-newspaperman George Creel, was designed to generate public support at home and abroad for America's war aims.
In 1919, after service with the American Peace Commission in Paris, Bernays returned to New York to apply the methods of the Committee on Public Information to the business world. His partner in the new venture was journalist Doris E. Fleischmann. They married in 1922. For some years entertainers and corporations had employed "press agents" to secure favorable notice in the newspapers. As the world's first "counsel on public relations," Bernays had loftier ambitions. He promised to actively shape public opinion in the interests of his clients.
Hair Nets, Soap, and Cigarettes
Bernays' campaigns for Venida hair nets and Procter & Gamble during the 1920s and Lucky Strike cigarettes during the 1930s provide good examples of his methods. At that time shorter hair styles were becoming the fashion among younger women. This development was a matter of no small concern to the manufacturers of Venida hair nets, who saw the market for their product disappearing along with longer tresses. Bernays was called upon for his advice. Soon prominent women were publicly expressing their preference for long hair over short and assorted authorities were warning of the dangers of unbound hair in factories and restaurants. In response, a number of state governments passed legislation requiring the wearing of hair nets on the job.
Despite Bernays' best efforts, the hair net was destined to pass into near-oblivion. Far more successful was his campaign for Procter & Gamble's Ivory soap. On the company's behalf he hired a medical consultant to survey American hospitals on their preference for white, unperfumed soap (like Ivory) over colored, scented soaps (its competitors). The advantages of Ivory, now duly certified by medical authorities, were given wide publicity. In addition, Bernays designed a number of special events to keep the name of Ivory soap constantly before the public. Under his urging Procter & Gamble established Ivory soap-sculpturing contests, judged by prominent artists, that eventually involved millions of schoolchildren across the nation. To promote Ivory's unparalleled ability to float, the company sponsored a soap-boat race in New York's Central Park.
Stranger still was Bernay's solution to the problem of women's aversion to Lucky Strike cigarettes' forest green pack. Women, who were just starting to be able to smoke in public by the early thirties, found that the pack clashed with their wardrobes. Rather than change the pack color, which was rejected by the parent company of Lucky Strikes, American Tobacco, as being too expensive, Bernays instituted a plan to instead change women's fashion to match the cigarette pack. 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.
Wide Range of Clients
Bernays earned his greatest fame through his promotion, for the electrical industry, of the 50th anniversary of the light bulb in 1929. Celebrations were held in 25 cities. Thomas Edison's birthplace was made a national landmark and a commemorative stamp was issued by the federal government. The anniversary year culminated in a Golden Jubilee celebration held in Dearborn, Michigan, on October 21, 1929, in which Edison was publicly honored by President Herbert Hoover, Henry Ford, and John D. Rockefeller, Jr.
Bernays provided public relations counsel to a wide variety of private and public organizations, including General Motors, the Columbia Broadcasting System, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Columbia University. In 1939 he was the publicity director for the New York World's Fair. During World War II his services were called upon by the Army, the Navy, and the Commerce and Treasury departments. After the war he was actively involved in the government's foreign information program.
Bernays strove throughout his long career to raise the status and standards of his profession. His lectures on public relations in 1923 at New York University were the first on that subject at a major university. He published widely in the field, including such classic works as Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923), Public Relations (1952), and The Engineering of Consent (1955).
Bernays retired in the early 1960s but continued as an consultant and advocate of public relations into his 100th year. He also, quite ironically in light of his work for Lucky Strike cigarettes in the 1930s, worked as an anti-smoking crusader. He died on March 9, 1995 in Cambridge, Massachusetts at the age of 103. Called nothing more than a huckster by his critics, Bernays nonetheless shaped our perception of the world we live in today. Neal Gabler wrote in his Bernays retrospective in New York Times Magazine, "he not only taught generations of persuaders how to sway public opinion … but he was, in the cultural historian Ann Douglas's words, the man 'who orchestrated the commercialization of a culture."'
Further Reading on Edward L. Bernays
Edward Bernays tells his own story in Biography of an Idea: Memoirs of Public Relations Counsel Edward L. Bernays (1965) and its companion volume The Later Years: Public Relations Insights 1956-1986 (1986). Eric F. Goldman's, Two-Way Street: The Emergence of the Public Relations Counsel (1948) is a brief sketch, generally sympathetic to Bernay's role in the history of public relations. But public relations and its practitioners have long been the targets of social critics. For a particularly lively example, see Irwin Ross, The Image Merchants: The Fabulous World of Public Relations (1959). Newspaper and magazine articles include a Bernays interview in Forbes (September 23, 1985); an interesting overview in Journalism History (Spring 1985); a lengthy piece in Social Research (Summer 1994); and the Bernays retrospective/tribute in New York Times Magazine (December 31, 1995).