Edward Bernays: The Godfather of Modern Propaganda Techniques

Edward Bernays: The Godfather of Modern Propaganda Techniques

Edward Bernays introduced Sigmund Freud's psychological techniques to the public relations profession and used propaganda to manipulate public opinion, leading to the domination of democracy by corporate leadership and social engineering.

Jaxx Ziegler
By Jaxx Ziegler
12 Min Read
Image: Freepik

Since 1914, the nature of propaganda and its principles have been steadily ingrained into the moral fibre of democracy. And throughout its assured process and seemingly inevitable compulsion, democracy has been taken over by the image of corporate leadership. In a world where the heavens and earth collide, social engineering has become the new tenant of commercial marketing. 

The masses, or as Walter Lippman referred to as “The Bewildered Herd,” have unconsciously traded a life of freedom for a life of one’s own psychology used against oneself, influenced by some of the largest institutions on earth. And who do we have to blame for that? A man by the name of Edward Bernays, the Godfather of contemporary propaganda techniques.  

Bernays’s propaganda model and its devices have moved beyond the prism of corporate entities and political heads of state; it has inserted foundations into political, congressional, and rudimentary affairs. 

Edward Louis Bernays, born in Vienna, Austria 1891, was born into riches, power and supremacy. Edward was the eldest son of Eli Bernays and Anna Freud – famed psychologist Sigmund Freud’s sister. In 1892, Bernays moved with his family to New York City where he attended the DeWitt Clinton High School and graduated from Cornell University, with a degree in agriculture in 1912.

- Advertisement -

After WWI ended in 1918, Woodrow Wilson appointed Edward Bernays as a member of the Committee on Public Information (CPI) publicity group at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Edward Bernays was astounded by Wilson’s reception, so much so that he began supporting the idea of manipulating public opinion to maintain the idea of democracy. 

After arriving back from the Paris reception, Bernays realised that if one could use propaganda for war, one could also use it for a plethora of other things. So he simultaneously co-established his public relations office on Broadway.

After sending his uncle Sigmund Freud a box of Havana cigars, Freud returned Bernays’s favour by delivering him the notorious general introduction to psychoanalysis. Bernays was so fascinated by his uncle’s theories that it drove him to popularise them by introducing Freud’s psychological and sociological techniques to his new public relations profession.

Edward Bernays: The Godfather of Modern Propaganda Techniques
The godfather of modern propaganda techniques Edward Bernays pictured above – Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Edward Bernays impact

In the early 1920s, Bernays conducted his most renowned PR work. From working with George Hill, the then president of the American Tobacco Association, to his invention of focus groups, Bernays had a significant impact on the psyche of many Americans. Bernays famously applied Freudian theory to convince Americans that their authentic “all-American breakfast” consisted of bacon and eggs. 

George Hill, then owner of Lucky Strike Cigarettes, asked Bernays if he could manipulate women into smoking cigarettes in an effort to make more money. As smoking was formerly an international figure of masculinity, Hill knew he needed to persuade women to do the same. Barneys achieved this by convincing women that smoking was a strong sign of emancipation.

International smoking for women was obviously an irrational sign of liberation and independence – but Bernays knew that. So by manipulating women into believing they were masculine themselves for smoking, cigarette sales soared. And women everywhere were lighting up the “Torches of freedom” that Bernays had devised. 

Edward Bernays: The Godfather of Modern Propaganda Techniques
Lucky Strike cigarette propaganda from 1931 devised by the likes of Edward Bernays – Wikimedia Commons

He later went on to conduct focus groups on Betty Croker’s instant cake mixes, The Barbie Doll and assisted the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) to convince the American public that water fluoridation was safe and beneficial to human health.

President Herbert Hoover was the first politician to articulate the idea of consumerism becoming the central motor of American expansionism. After Hoover’s election, he told a group of New York Public Relations (which included Bernays): “You have taken over the job of creating desire in order to transform the public into constantly moving happiness machines… Machines which have become the key to economic progress.”

- Advertisement -

What began to emerge from here on was a new idea of how to run a mass democracy; the all-consuming self-engineering to make the economy function as a civil and disillusioned society. Nonetheless, an ever-adaptable Bernays would go on to work not just for private industry, but also for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). And out of this would come some of the more sinister human experiments in history.

Intelligence experiments

Cementing the idea of the importance of fighting the Cold War in the psyche of the American people now began to take place in Washington D.C. But above all, it was bound to be the CIA who took the fundamentals of propaganda much further. The CIA was concerned that the Soviets were experimenting with psychological methods to alter the memories of Russian civilians, to produce a more controllable populace, using “brainwashing.”

Psychologists in the CIA realised that this may actually be possible, so the organisation decided to try it for themselves. The CIA began secretly funding experiments throughout American colleges (i.e. Harvard) on how to alter and control the inner drives of human beings.

The most notorious of these experiments was the LSD mind control program MK-Ultra, run by the head of the American Psychiatric Association, Dr Ewan Cameron. This would lead to Ted Kackynski’s MK-Ultra experience during his time at Harvard University. 

Dr Cameron, like many other psychiatrists, corroborated Freud’s theorising that inside the human mind were dangerous forces, which threatened modern society and industrial civilisation. “Psychiatrists should be in every parliament, and should direct and monitor political activities,” Dr Cameron once said.

The Banana Republic

While Americans were responding to Cold War threats like “The Red Scare,” Bernays was brilliantly transforming these issues into a false communist threat. How? By working with one of his most famous clients – the Guatemalan United Fruit Company. 

United Fruit had controlled Guatemala through pliable dictators for decades. In 1950, a young officer named Colonel Arbenz was elected president of the country, known as “The Banana Republic,” who promised to remove United Fruit’s control over Guatemala. 

But what was originally a popular idea turned into a disaster for United Fruit. So they turned to Bernays for help to oust Arbenz from office. Bernays organised a trip to Guatemala for influential American Journalists and tricked the media into thinking Arbenz was a communist with links to Moscow. When in reality Arbenz was a mere socialist with no known links to Moscow at the time.

- Advertisement -

The CIA was then instructed to organise a coup and by working with the United Fruit company, the United States Government trained and armed a rebel army and found a new leader for the country – Colonel Armas. Interestingly, the CIA agent in charge of this coup was none other than Howard Hunt himself.

While planes flown by CIA pilots dropped bombs on Guatemala City, Edward Bernays carried on with his propaganda campaign in the American press. Ultimately, Bernays was able to significantly reshape reality and public opinion across America.

Nevertheless, Colonel Arbenz fled the country and Armas arrived as the new central leader. Within months, Vice President Nixon visited Guatemala during an event staged by the United Fruits Public Relations Department; Nixon spoke over a live broadcast in front of a mass number of Marxists with Armas present. 

Bernays had yet again successfully manipulated the people of a nation. He had done so because he, like many others at the time, believed that the interests of business and America were not mutually exclusive. Especially when faced with the threat of communism.

Germany, The United States and WWII

While World War I displayed the power of propaganda techniques, World War II utterly transformed the way the government viewed democracy and information dissemination.

 The American Government as a result of the war became convinced that Sigmund Freud was correct in his theory: that there were indeed savage and dangerous forces inside all human beings that needed to be under control. 

World War II later served as hard evidence that human beings will act irrationally under stress and by extension – be easily manipulated. It was this kind of chaos that exists at the base of human personality that is capable of infecting society’s social institutions to such a degree that society itself would become sick. 

Politicians in post-war America would come to fear those savage forces amongst their own population. And by the 1940s psychoanalysts were being trained internationally to use the techniques applied by Freud and Bernays to keep control of the masses.

- Advertisement -

Bernays’ extreme methods have permanently altered what democracy is, reducing it to a material value. What this has led to has ultimately shaped some of the most deeply troubled aspects of contemporary culture and due to such – we live in a manipulative and deeply controlled society.

Ann Bernays, Edward’s daughter, was often strongly vocal about how intolerable “the masses” were to her father: “To Edward, people were stupid. And that’s the paradox. If you don’t leave it up to the people themselves, yet force them to choose what the system wants them to choose. However subtle it may seem, it’s the exact opposite of democracy. It’s something else, it’s being told what to do.”

Jaxx Ziegler
Posted by Jaxx Ziegler Investigative Journalist
Jaxx Ziegler is an Australian-based freelance journalist for CONTX Media, focusing on deep topics like big tech censorship, mass surveillance, history and the psychedelic mind.
We hope you're enjoying your free article
Subscribe today, support independent journalism and get full access. All for less than $1/month.

Post Protected Pop-up