Story of “Father of Spin” is history of manipulation. You may not know Edward Bernays, but he certainly knew you.
There likely is not another human, dead or alive, who has influenced the American public so much, yet is known by so few.
Bernays’ name — unlike that of his famous uncle, Sigmund Freud — isn’t learned in school. Yet his influence over Americans’ daily habits and thoughts in the 20th century is profound.
Did you take up smoking to stay slim? That was Bernays’ idea, too.
Did you support the Persian Gulf War? Perhaps you didn’t know that some rich Kuwaitis hired Hill and Knowlton to rally the American public into fighting Saddam Hussein. The public relations firm learned how to do that from Bernays.
The father of public relations is featured in a thought-provoking, sometimes alarming, book titled “The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations” (Crown, $27.50).
Author Larry Tye has produced a richly detailed portrait of a man whose influence can be felt around the world.
“Bernays demonstrated to an entire generation of budding PR men and women the enormous power that lay within their grasp,” Tye writes. “If housewives could be guided in their selection of soap, so could husbands in their choice of a car. And voters in their selection of candidates. And candidates in their political posturing. Indeed, the very substance of American thought was mere clay to be molded by the savvy public relations practitioner, or so it seemed.”
Bernays’ revolutionary ideas were based on discovering trends and capitalizing on them for his clients. He called it “crystallizing public opinion” and used it to sell products ranging from soap and hair nets to presidential candidates and war.
Those concepts came, indirectly, from his famous psychiatrist uncle, Freud, Tye concludes. The founder of psychoanalysis had numerous long talks with his nephew while walking in the Viennese woods at the beginning of Bernays’ career in the 1920s.
Bernays “used his uncle’s ideas in the commercial realm to predict, then adjust, the way people believed and behaved. Never mind that they didn’t realize it. In fact, all the better,” Tye writes.
Thus Bernays came up with slogans such as “Reach for a Lucky [cigarette] instead of a Sweet” to entice women to become smokers, He organized massive soap-sculpting contests to get children interested in Ivory soap.
His detailed look at how Americans became such an overly influenced people is likely to make many readers uncomfortable.