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Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud. His early adoption of Freud's psychoanalytic theory was instrumental in defining the goals and strategies of public relations. Freud theorized that people are motivated by unconscious desires. To develop public relations, Bernays synthesized elements of Freud's work with Gustave Le Bon's researches into crowd psychology, and Wilfred Trotter's theories of herd instinct.
In the 1920s, it was considered taboo for women to smoke in public. George W. Hill, president of the American Tobacco Company, realized that his company was missing a share of the market. He hired Bernays to change the taboo and persuade women to start smoking. Bernays contacted psychoanalyst Abraham Brill to understand the societal perceptions that discouraged women from smoking. Brill told him that for feminists, cigarettes were like "torches of freedom" that symbolized their nonconformity and freedom from male oppression.
Bernays used this information to build a strategy. He contacted a female friend and asked her to find a group of women to march in the New York City Easter Day parade. He asked her to tell the press that a group of women's rights marchers would light "Torches of Freedom". The women lit Lucky Strike cigarettes in front of the eager photographers. The New York Times (1 April 1929) printed: "Group of Girls Puff at Cigarettes as a Gesture of 'Freedom'".
In the 1930s, he attempted to convince women that Lucky Strike cigarettes' forest green pack was the most fashionable color. Letters were written to interior and fashion designers, department stores, and prominent women of society pushing green as the new hot color for the season. Balls, gallery exhibitions, and window displays all featured green after Bernays got through with them. The result was that green did indeed become a very popular color for the 1934 season and Lucky Strike kept their pack color and female clientele intact.
After his semi-retirement in the 1960s, he worked with the pro-health anti-smoking lawyer John Banzhaf's group, ASH and supported other anti-smoking campaigns.
Bernays helped to convince the American public that water fluoridation was safe and beneficial to human health.
Bernays applied Freud's observations to convince the public, among other things, that bacon and eggs was the true all-American breakfast.
Bernays's most extreme political propaganda activities were said to be conducted on behalf of the multinational corporation United Fruit Company (renamed Chiquita Brands International in 1984) and the U.S. government to facilitate the successful 1954 coup against the democratically elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman. Bernays's propaganda (documented in the BBC documentary The Century of the Self), branding Arbenz as communist, was published in major U.S. media. According to a book review by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton of Larry Tye's biography of Bernays, The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays & The Birth of PR, "the term 'banana republic' actually originated in reference to United Fruit's domination of corrupt governments in Guatemala and other Central American countries."
When Venida, a hairnet manufacturer, hired Bernays' services, he started a campaign to convince women to grow their hair longer so they would buy more hairnets. Although the campaign failed to influence many women, it convinced government officials to require hairnets for certain jobs.
Bernays worked with Procter & Gamble for Ivory-brand bar soap. The campaign successfully convinced people that Ivory soap was medically superior to other soaps. He also promoted soap through sculpting contests and floating contests because the soap floated better than its competitors'.
In the 1930s, his Dixie Cup campaign was designed to convince consumers that only disposable cups were sanitary by linking the imagery of the overflowing cup with subliminal images of vaginas and venereal disease.
In 1920, Bernays successfully hosted the first NAACP convention in Atlanta, Georgia. His campaign was considered successful because there was no violence at the convention. His campaign focused on the important contributions of African-Americans to Whites living in the South. He later received an award from the NAACP for his contribution.
In October 1929, Bernays was involved in promoting Light's Golden Jubilee. The event, which spanned across several major cities in the U.S., was designed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Thomas Edison's invention of the light-bulb (though a form of light-bulb had been simultaneously invented by Joseph Swan). The publicity elements of the Jubilee–including the special issuance of a U.S. postage stamp and Edison's "re-creating" the invention of the light bulb for a nationwide radio audience – provided evidence of Bernays's love for big ideas and "ballyhoo". A follow-up event for the 75th anniversary, produced for television by David O. Selznick, was titled Light's Diamond Jubilee and broadcast on all four American TV networks on October 24, 1954.
Bernays was the publicity director of the 1939 New York World's Fair.
In 1913, Bernays secured one of his first consulting contracts. American actor Richard Bennett hired him to defend a play that promoted sex education against police interference. Bernays set up a front organization called the Medical Review of Reviews Sociological Fund. Although the organization purported to fight sexually transmitted disease, its sole purpose was to endorse Bennett's play.
- Advertising campaign
- The Century of the Self (2002), a documentary series about Bernays and the invention of public relations
- Fundamental human needs
- Stephen Bender. Karl Rove & the Spectre of Freud’s Nephew, LewRockwell.com, 4 February 2005
- Alix Spiegel. Freud's Nephew and the Origins of Public Relations, Morning Edition, 22 April 2005
- BBC. "THE CENTURY OF THE SELF". peter1979sk. Retrieved 26 November 2011.
- Alan Bilton (2013). Silent Film Comedy and American Culture. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 16.
- Rampton, Sheldon; Stauber, John (2001), Trust us, we're experts, pp. 44f.