Edward Bernays: The Father of Marketing Psychology, and Where He Went Wrong, Parts I & II
I want to tell you, this week, the story of the man who changed marketing forever. A story that runs more deeply than you may realize. If you even know the story at all.
It begins with him working, as a young man, for Woodrow Wilson. He was part of the group that crafted the line, “Making the world safe for democracy.”
How brilliant was that?
I’ll tell you. For one, it helped sell Wilson’s cause to Americans, to get them sold on entering World War I.
(If you remember, we were a bit late on that game.)
For two, it also helped sell Wilson’s agenda for forming the League of Nations. Big stuff, that was.
But here’s the real thing about all that.
See, this guy I’m about to tell you about, he got to travel with Wilson’s entourage to Paris, just after the war.
And he was shocked by the reception.
Crowds poured into the Paris streets. But what astonished this young man at the time was not just the quantity of support, but the amazing fact that these people… millions of them, and thousands of miles from Washington… were eagerly repeating back that phrase.
“Making the world safe for democracy.”
It stunned young Edward Bernays, the man we’re talking about. Stunned him in such a way that inspired him to become one of America’s most powerful icons in the history of marketing.
See, Edward made his way back to America with a changed idea of how ideas take root in society.
He was just 27 at the time.
But he realized, even then, that words had power. What’s more, he suspected that ideas had untapped power too… namely, the power to engage an audience at a whole new level.
Let me stop and give some background.
At this point, the war had juiced up the American industrial machine to new heights. Factories and methods used for cranking out military machinery were now ready to crank out consumer goods. Problem:
American industry had to figure out how to sell those mass-produced products on a scale never seen before the war.
But, up until then, all advertising had been done very plainly and directly. Have a product? Inform the customer. Tell him the color and the size, the facts and the features. And that, most believed, should be enough.
But along comes Edward.
There is, he suspects, something more. Something deeper. Something beyond what anybody was selling. Something that tapped into how the target audience member wanted to feel about himself.
And that was the key.
Edward Bernays, after the war, found himself in New York. He connected with the growing advertising industry and he was already applying his findings about customer psychology with some success.
Then something else even luckier happened.
Edward got a letter. It was from his uncle, a European scientist, asking for money. Edward, he said, I disdain to ask you this favor, but times are hard in Austria, and my research thus far has not been well received. Is there a way I might borrow from you a sum to help cover some recent expenses?
Of course, said Edward, and knowing his uncle was fond of cigars, Edward enclosed a box of Cubans along with the check.
His uncle — Sigmund Freud — was extremely grateful. So he sent a copy of his unpublished book, “A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis” as a way to say thanks. Inside, Bernays found backing for his ideas about the power of emotions to persuade.
He was so impressed, in fact, he arranged for uncle Sigmund’s book to be published in America. It was a smash hit. It’s exploration into base and hidden motivators seemed to reveal everything, for instance, about the inexplicable violent behavior of the first World War.
Freud became famous, but so did Bernays.
Here’s the difference. Where Freud believed civilization was an over-rated and ill-equipped attempt to try to tame certain base impulses, Bernays saw them as a powerful opportunity for American industry to connect with their target customers as they never had before.
And he was, it turned out, mostly right.
People act on information. But they act much more strongly if you can connect with them on a very deep and more unconscious level. It was Bernays, based on his uncle’s research into the unconscious, who discovered this.
And based on this discovery, Bernays fast became one of America’s first real marketing superstars. Some even say it was Bernays who invented modern consumerism.
Just as an example, the publishing icon William Randolf Hearst needed to sell a new line of women’s magazines. At the time, no such thing really existed.
Yet, Bernays made it happen, simply by associating the message of the magazines with glamorous Hollywood starlets of the time. Read these magazines, be like the stars, went his rationale.
It was a fantastic success.
Next came the tobacco companies. For years, they’d wanted to open up the market for female smokers. but back then, smoking was as good as spitting, as far as most woman were concerned.
Until Bernays found a way to associate the taboo of female smoking… with female empowerment, actually hiring well-known feminists of the era to march in New York with cigarettes dangling.
Another huge success.
For Wall Street, it was also Bernays who made popular stock investing popular, for the first time, for the American middle class.
Wall Street brokerages wanted to open up the market. So Bernays helped them convince Americans that stocks were the best way for the average man to own his own piece of the pie.
It was, yet again, another huge success for Bernays.
Then everything went horribly wrong…
Last week I started to tell you the story of Edward
Bernays, father of modern psychology-based marketing
and nephew of Sigmund Freud.
Here’s the rest of the tale.
Where we last left off, Bernays had discovered —
thanks partly to his uncle — what bundles of
unspoken, unrecognized emotion we all are. Spilling
over, as it were, with deep and turbulent desires.
If he could tap those emotions, Bernays realized, he
could sell just about anything. Which is exactly what
he set out to do.
I mentioned, last week, how Bernays helped Hearst
launched magazines. Also how he helped Big Tobacco
crack open market for female smokers.
But that was just the beginning.
In 1920, for instance, Bernays sold the city of
Atlanta on hosting a regional convention for the
National Association for the Advancement of Colored
Remember, this is around the time lynching and racial
segregation were still hot ideas in the South.
So before the NAACP made its pitch, Bernays lined up
Northern newspapers and leaders ready to praise
Atlanta for hosting the event. How could they resist?
This was a favorite Bernays technique.
Get indirect endorsement from a third-party, and the
product, idea, or event sells itself.
For instance, take bacon. To bump up sales, Bernays
put together a physicians survey advocating a “hearty
breakfast.” Eggs and bacon, according to the survey,
fell in that category. Soon after Bernays mailed the
results to 5,000 more doctors, bacon sales soared.
Then there was Ivory soap. In 1923, Bernays bumped up
sales by getting the famous Ziegfeld Follies girls to
tell newspapers why they preferred using “pure white,
unscented soap” to keep their skin smooth (Ivory was
the only white, unscented brand at the time).
In 1924, Bernays helped sell American silk. U.S.
textile companies couldn’t compete with French silk
makers. So Bernays hired a French expert to come to
the States and judge U.S. silk quality.
He even managed to get American silk samples
displayed in the Louvre in Paris. The implied
endorsement was enough to send silk sales flying.
He did it again in 1928 for “Silent Cal” Coolidge.
Coolidge was a publicity man’s nightmare. In a debate
between Cal and a freshly-painted wall, the wall
would win. Cal was more or less a dud.
Bernays’ challenge: make Coolidge seem like a
bubbling cauldron of fun. And Bernays came closer
than anybody to pulling it off.
From the White House, every top actor, singer, or
entertainer in New York got an invitation to a
special “pancake breakfast” with the president.
They came. So did the press. A later headline would
read, “President Nearly Smiles.” In the weeks
following, Coolidge’s ratings jumped considerably.
Here’s the thing. All this is stellar. Bernays really
was a genius. And he really did get a lot right about
the psychology of crowds.
But he also made a very big mistake.
See, the more famous he got, the more Bernays started
to believe his own good press (much of which he’d
He started to believe he was not only a keen observer
of the public mind, but also the master of it. He
even called it the “engineering of consent,” and
believed it was the moral duty of the intellectual
elite — himself included — to manipulate the public
In his 1928 book, “Propaganda,” he wrote:
“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.”
Many others agreed. Some, especially politicians,
still agree today. Trouble is, a couple of stories
illustrate the big problems with this line of
First is simply that this kind of deeper selling to
the subconscious can be used in all kinds of ways,
not all of them good.
Joseph Goebbels, for instance, would later use
another Bernays book, “Crystallizing Public Opinion,”
to sway desperate Germans toward Hitler’s murderous
Second is that, as marketers or advertisers or
persuaders of any kind, we’re never really masters of
the audience at all.
It’s the audience who actually holds the key. Since
it’s their unconscious emotions that drive the boat.
And on a whim, the tide can turn. Freud even made
that point. But it was lost on Bernays.
And in 1929, that left him — and the rest of his
elite bunch — woefully exposed. That same year,
General Electric had hired Bernays to pull together a
celebration called “Light’s Golden Jubilee.”
The broad theme was a pat on the back for American
industry. The focus was the 50-year anniversary of
the invention of the light bulb, by Thomas Alva
GE hired Bernays in May. He had six months to get
ready. He sent out press releases. He got papers to
run biographies on Edison. The U.S. Post Office
issued an Edison stamp. Cities around the world
agreed to shut off electricity for one minute, on
October 21, in Edison’s honor. Henry Ford, Orville
Wright, John Rockefeller, Marie Curie, President
Hoover and others would all be at the dedication
It would be a global event.
But remember, this was 1929.
Years earlier, Bernays himself had helped Wall Street
sell middle class Americans on the idea of owning
stocks. And they bought by the millions, some socking
their whole life savings in the market.
But starting that same week of the “Golden Jubilee,”
the stock market started to fall apart. By October
29, it had completely crashed.
American investors — and American business — got
wiped out. They would spend the next decade trying to
recover. So would Bernays.
The lesson is simply this.
Never forget that the crowd calls the shots. For
marketers especially, this is true. Only half of what
we do is selling ideas. The other half — maybe more
than half — is in trying to get the read on how the
public’s needs and opinions have changed.
We are not social scientists. If anything, we’re
anthropologists. We want to stay ahead of other
marketers, yes. But the audience is already well
ahead of us.
Here’s another part of the story.
Winston Churchill once said, “Before you can inspire
with emotion, you must be swamped with it yourself.
Before you can move their tears, your own must flow.
To convince them, you must first believe.”
This is part of the weakness of being a marketer just
for marketing’s sake. It’s also why company founders
who do their own marketing are often the best
salesmen their companies will ever have.
Sometimes, we get distracted by the power of
marketing psychology. We start to think that good
advertising and all the rest is just the art (or
science) of manipulating people into doing things
they neither want nor need to do.
And of course, this is how some marketers build
entire careers, doing exactly that.
But is that really good marketing?
Not at all.
Great copywriter Gary Bencivenga said it. The easiest
ideas, products, and service to sell… are the good
ideas, products and services.
Quality is everything.
Add to that this simple fact: Your customers are
entitled to an honest transaction. They’re entitled
to know the truth.
Heresy for a copywriter?
Not at all.
Here’s the bottom line:
First, selling to deep emotions really is the most
powerful way to a prospect. Just make sure you don’t
forget that this sale starts and ends with the
prospect, not with you.
Second, the psychology of selling was a breakthrough.
And it matters. But what matters much more is the
quality of the product you’re selling. Does it serve
the prospect’s needs? Will it adapt to those needs as
they evolve over time? That’s where the relationship
with the customer really begins.
This article originally appeared in John Forde’s e-zine, Copywriter’s Roundtable. Forde has 14 years of high-level direct-mail copywriting experience and leads invitation-only copywriting seminars in the U.S., U.K, Germany, and France. To get your free subscription, visit http://www.jackforde.com