New York Times

Waggin the Dog: The Early Years
by Deborah Stead

Edward L. Bernays, who died three years ago at the age of 103, was a master of public relations — the grand spinmeister of the century he spanned.

Beginning in the 1920’s, Bernays pulled strings and pushed products so adroitly that his was a truly invisible hand: His campaigns rarely carried his fingerprints or those of his clients — Lucky Strikes, Calvin Coolidge and the United Fruit Company, to name just three among hundreds.

Instead, as Larry Tye writes in “The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations,” he relied on a more roundabout method.

“Bernays generated events, the events generated news, and the news generated a demand for whatever he happened to be selling,” writes the author, a reporter for The Boston Globe.

To get more women to buy cigarettes in the 1920’s, Bernays convinced feminists that public smoking was a sign of liberation. Once they decided to brandish their cigarettes at a Manhattan march — his idea — the resulting newspaper coverage did the work for Bernays’s client, the American Tobacco Company, the maker of Luckies.

To soften the image of the dour Coolidge, whom he helped elect, Bernays sent celebrities to the White House, then helpfully gave the press corps its angle. “Jolson Makes President Laugh for the First Time in Public,” read one obedient headline.

And decades later, in 1954, Bernays had a key propaganda role in the overthrow, aided by the Central Intelligence Agency, of Guatemala’s socialist Government. His line: the Latin American nation represented a Communist threat. His goal: protecting United Fruit’s profitable banana operation.

In all this, Mr. Tye notes, the news media were Mr. Bernays’s partners, unwitting and otherwise. They listened to his pitch on Guatemala. They published articles by “experts” he had hired to write about, say, hearty breakfasts (for a bacon processor) or the growing popularity of being slim (for American Tobacco, whose pitch to women was “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet”).

Such a strategic approach to shaping public opinion was a hallmark of the man — and his legacy, the author says. There is even a widespread belief that Joseph Goebbels was influenced by Bernays, who was a Jewish Austrian immigrant.

Today, the author notes, tens of thousands of American spin doctors build on the strategies that Bernays refined, from movie product placement to Presidential image-making.

This book, the first full biography of Bernays, is meant to “unmask” the man, the author says, and to show how popular ideas are shaped routinely by “singular powers in our culture.”

“The Father of Spin” is myopic at times, picking at Bernays’s personal flaws and worrying over his exact place in public relations history.

And it has a few other problems — most notably the failure to deliver on a juicy claim early in the book that Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, used his uncle’s theory of the unconscious “to rob customers of their free will.”

But Mr. Tye, who sifted through hundreds of boxes of Bernays’s papers at the Library of Congress, succeeds wonderfully in illustrating the often-creepy power of our opinion makers.

As the author re-creates one after another of Bernays’s campaigns to change public life for the sake of a product — he calls it the “Big Think” strategy — the lines between publicity and propaganda seem to blur.

The full tale of United Fruit is especially chilling in this regard, as is, for some reason, the revelation that Bernays’s staff wrote jokes and repeated them in society for the benefit of clients. Thus every woman who eyed chocolate and quipped, “a moment on the lips and 10 years on the hips” was a soldier in Luckies’ anti-sweet campaign.

Based on correspondence he found in some of the Bernays boxes — more than 50 cartons chronicling an 18-year relationship with American Tobacco — the author also argues that Bernays suspected that smoking was perilous as far back as the 1930’s, despite his assertions years later that he wasn’t aware of the dangers at the time.

The book is much less absorbing in the chapters devoted to Bernays’s personal life. As a husband, the self-proclaimed feminist was often chauvinistic, we are told; as a father, he could be overcontrolling. (When one of his daughters, Anne Bernays, the novelist, published her first book, he sent out news releases against her wishes.) For a liberal, he was class-conscious and elitist, the author says. And as an autobiographer and éminence grise of public relations, he sometimes puffed up the importance of his contributions. What else would a P.R. man do?

Biographies, of course, demand these assessments. But Bernays’s personal foibles seem beside the point here. Fittingly, perhaps, it is the spinmeister, not the man behind the mask, who commands our attention.