Edward Bernays, the father of modern consumerism, the designer of “public relations” as we know it today and the creator of modern marketing campaigns, 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. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes are formed, our ideas suggested largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.” (Propaganda, Horace Liveright, 1928)

When Woodrow Wilson was elected as President in 1916, he was chosen as the “peace candidate.” Our nation was at peace, and its people desired peace. Wilson campaigned on the mantra that our nation would remain at peace. After the election, Wilson’s mind was changed, and what followed was a systematic effort to change public opinion about going to war. Once public consent was given, the nation entered the war.

How did this happen? Public opinion was swayed from cries for peace to cries for war by following the road map developed by Bernays. Bernays ultimately orchestrated corporate marketing campaigns to sell Lucky Strike cigarettes, Ivory soap, Dixie cups, and other household name products. “Under the old salesmanship the manufacturer said to the prospective purchaser, ‘Please buy a piano.’ The new salesmanship has reversed the process and caused the prospective purchaser to say to the manufacturer, ‘Please sell me a piano.’”

Before Bernays, customers made their own buying choices. After Bernays, choices were made for the customer, leaving the customer to salivate after certain products and issues. The obvious inference Bernays made in developing this grand scheme is that people are not intelligent enough to make their own choices and must be manipulated to do what a few people want them to do – those few people conveniently being the wealthiest and most powerful people in the nation.

Using the techniques he developed, corporations and governments caused the American people to want the things they wanted the people to have and to believe. By manipulating public opinion, choices on everything from paper goods and groceries to political causes and candidates have been systematically made for the American people.

Bernays wasn’t necessarily wrong in his assessment of a democratic society. We as a people of freedom can do great things when we are united. His tactics were also clever, perhaps even ingenious. One of his ideas for Ivory soap was the soap carving contest, which is simply brilliant.

However, Bernays himself understood that manipulation of public opinion could be used for evil purposes. Although he advocated for a standard of ethics to guide public relations, it is clear that public opinion has been manipulated toward products, political issues and national decisions that are not in our best interest. It is also true that deception has intentionally been injected into the process of manipulation.

Cigarettes and Dixie cups are two examples. Cigarettes are known to cause a myriad of health problems, including emphysema and lung cancer, not to mention deforestation of trees to make cigarettes, air pollution, addiction to nicotine, and littering of public streets. It is said of Bernays that he refused to smoke because he believed cigarettes were harmful, yet he happily developed the campaign that manipulate people into choosing to smoke, willfully disregarding the public’s health. This is where the standard of ethics he advocated broke down. Such attitudes overlook the best interests of the public and benefit only the person or corporation making the sale or the government pushing the issue.

While Dixie cups have their uses, the particular approach Bernays used to make people want to buy them was flawed. One of Bernays’ marketing campaigns showed two children sharing a glass cup to wash their mouth out in the bathroom after brushing their teeth. Because the one child was sick, both children were put at risk. Dixie cups solved this problem because they were to be thrown away after each use. Images of the cups being thrown away were included in the campaign. People obviously came to believe that they needed Dixie cups.

I don't know about you, but in my home as a child we never used glass cups in the bathroom. This did not matter to Bernays because by suggesting that a glass cup was in the bathroom he created a new reality. This new reality, of course, ignores the alternative people have used for millennia before – use their hand to collect water for rinsing out their mouth. While Dixie cups were sold to solve a problem that did not exist for the purpose of transferring wealth from the people to the corporation, their use has inevitably added to land fill development and deforestation of trees, both of which are unsustainable practices.

This has led to scores of people being burdened under credit card debt, personal loans, title and payday loans, student loans, car loans and mortgages because their level of want was far higher than their income. This issue is exacerbated among low-income households and those in poverty.

This has led to scores of people being burdened under credit card debt, personal loans, title and payday loans, student loans, car loans and mortgages.

In my next post, we will look at how to combat the public relations manipulation techniques.


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    Climbing the Money Tree


    R. Joseph Ritter, Jr. CFP® is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER(TM) and founder of Zacchaeus Financial Counseling, Inc., a non-profit organization providing financial planning services to low-income households and households experiencing financial strain.

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