Monday, May 21, 2012

"Everything About It Is Appalling"

Edward Bernays (1891-1995), a nephew of Sigmund Freud, adopted psychological principles and applied them to the arena of public persuasion.

Noticing how successful World War I propaganda was in getting American men to sign up to be mowed down in the battlefields of Europe, Bernays believed that the same strategies could be used to sell hand soap and refrigerators.

Since the word “propaganda” had negative connotations – being associated with sending “Doughboys” off to mutilation and death – Bernays renamed the service he planned to provide, “Public Relations”, making Edward Bernays Edward Bernays’s very first customer.

Representing both product manufacturers and politicians – the moral distinction being exclusively for sissies – Bernays’ notable clientele included Procter & Gamble, CBS, President Calvin Coolidge – Coolidge, a little stiff, needed “Man of the People” repurposing – and the United Fruit Company, of “Chiquita Banana” fame, for whom, along with its co-client, the United States Government, he helped facilitate the overthrow of the democratically elected president of Guatemala. (Possibly instigating a “whisper campaign”, saying the Guatemalan president had a distinct preference for apples.)

Bernays’ most famous campaign involved his work on behalf of the American Tobacco Company, makers of “Lucky Strike” cigarettes.

Up till the 1920’s, cigarette smoking was considered socially unacceptable for women, a condition unacceptable to the American Tobacco Company, as it meant a reduction of potential cigarette purchasers in the vicinity of fifty percent.

A tricky problem – taking on an entrenched cultural proscription. But Bernays had a plan.

He would promote cigarette smoking as a symbolic representation of women’s liberation.
Identifying the Women’s Right to Vote (which American women had won in 1920) with the Women’s Right to Smoke (and if you don’t hear well, they sound very much alike), Bernays took a behavior that causes lung cancer and numerous other medical difficulties and turned it into a howling demand for gender equality.

“Women have as much right to speak through a hole in their throats as men do!”

Wisely, he did not frame that way.

Instead, during the New York City Easter Parade of 1929, Bernays arranged a highly publicized “photo op”, involving models (“Thanks for the sex tip, Unkie!”) holding lit cigarettes, dramatically dubbed for the occasion,

“Torches of Freedom.”

After that, it was Katie, bar the door!

Bernays set two precedents with this campaign. He took a “sales problem” – getting women to buy cigarettes – and elevated it to a symbolic “rights” issue – “A woman’s right to smoke.”

This sounds strikingly similar to today’s gun company’s taking a sales problem – getting people to buy a product which happens to be guns – and presenting it as an issue of personal liberty. You hear infinitely less about the guns themselves than about our Constitutional right to own them. What if they make your hair fall out? Shouldn’t we know about that?

The other precedent the “Torches of Freedom” campaign set was to position the product promotion so as to be seen not as an advertising campaign, but as a legitimate “news event.” In so doing, you get visibility for your product, your “news event” gets written about and talked about, the publicity – and, in later years, the airtime – all being entirely free.

New iPad, anyone?

“It’s got to be special. It was on the news!”

Sigmund Freud said,

“The goal of psychology is to convert neurotic misery into ordinary unhappiness.”
(Freud was clearly not the family member in the “Public Relations” business. If he had heard that,

Bernays would surely have advised his uncle to come up with a snappier “Mission Statement.”)
When I was first confronted with Freud’s less than energizing claim, I was marginally discouraged. The stuff that Bernays fooled around with? Puts me right in the dumper.

If these “Merchants of Manipulation” can confect a symbolic issue to get women to start smoking – and it works

What else can they get us to do?

1 comment:

pumpkinhead said...

Very interesting post.