A Bigger Lie
When Edward Bernays and his wife Doris married in 1922, they wanted a modern wedding, stripped of the pomp and ceremony that symbolised the enslavement of woman to man. So they did it secretly, in the marriage chapel of the New York Municipal Building, and planned to let the news out casually, some weeks later. But with his passion publicity, Bernays could not bear it. The moment they got to the Waldorf-Astoria, Doris recalled, “My husband grasped the telephone and called hundreds of his most intimate friends to tell them about our secret marriage.”
To describe Bernays as the “father of spin” is, well, putting a bit of a spin on it. People were puffing their clients’ achievements long before the Greek historian Thucydides composed the fine speeches that Athenian generals supposedly made. But Bernays was one of the most interesting figures in the spin business at a buccaneering time. American consumerism was taking off, there was plenty of demand for the services of public-relations men and none of the tiresome modern restrictions on advertising that today make it harder to tell bald-faced lies.
One of Bernays’ skills was sensing where public opinion was moving, and using it in his favour. His first success was a campaign for the American Tobacco Company to encourage women to smoke. Slimness was becoming fashionable for women, so he flogged cigarettes as a healthy alternative to sweets, enlisting the help of “experts” to claim in the press that cigarettes also disinfected the mouth.
Women were still resistant, though; which was when Bernays had the brilliant idea of using cigarettes as a symbol of emancipation. He put it about in the papers that the taboo against women smoking in public was symptomatic of male oppression, and organized a march down Fifth Avenue of fashionable young women with their “torches of freedom.” He orchestrated massive press coverage (which omitted to mention that the march was led by his secretary). Afterwards, newspapers carried reports of women being seen smoking in the street; and within a few weeks, the Broadway theatres changed their rules to allow women into their smoking rooms.
Bernays also invented a tool much-used since: the front organization. When, for instance, a new government in Guatemala threatened to take over some of the vast plantations of the United Fruit Company, and distribute it among the peasants, Bernays set up the Middle America Information Bureau. United Fruit financed the Bureau, which provided information to the newspapers about communist penetration in Guatemala. The newspapers printed the information, the American public was inflamed, there was a CIA backed insurgency and the elected government was toppled and replaced by a right wing totalitarian regime.
Most of the interest in this entertaining book comes from the meticulous effrontery of Bernays’ campaigns; but there is an ideological conundrum, too, at the centre of it. Bernays was a passionate individualist who wrote voluminously about the need to defeat communism by manipulation the opinion of the masses through the skillful use of propaganda. The paradox did not, apparently, trouble him.