Bernays and the Legacy of PR

Although we see advertisements and the effect of public relations everyday we rarely hear about the public relations firms behind them. In a fitting way Edward Bernays’ legacy pervades our media but Bernays himself is not a widely discussed figure outside of the public relations industry. In his time he ran successful PR campaigns for Proctor and Gamble’s Ivory Soap, the American Tobacco Company, GE and GM. Bernays campaigns often were sprawling affairs including months of preparation and large tie ins such as his Ivory soap campaign which had a yearly soap sculpture contest.

Bernays’ impact on modern PR come not only from his successful campaigns but also from his writings. In his 1928 book Propaganda, Bernays defined the role of public relations and put forth his theory on herd psychology. Bernay’s definition of propaganda which Bernays considered a benign tool despite today’s negative connotation, is as relevant today as when he wrote it in 1928 “Modern propaganda is a consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise, idea or group.” (Bernays 25). Bernays also theorized that populations follow leaders of opinion and the key to influencing masses of people hinges on influencing those leaders they follow “If you can influence the leaders, either with or without their conscious cooperation, you automatically influence the group which they sway” (Bernays 49). Under Bernays PR became a powerful tool for marketing both products and ideas. The ideas he put forward are still employed in the public relations industry today.

Takeaways for rumination:

  • Think of some organizations that have a vested interest in influencing the public (this does not need to be limited to politics). Why would these organizations want to control public opinion?
  • Do you respect someone’s opinion on social matters such as fashion and taste? If so why do you respect them?

One comment

  1. A very intriguing point that is made is the invisibility or unacknowledged figurehead of Bernays in society as a whole; I sure knew nothing of this person prior to this class. The idea is a bit chilling, the notion that there are countless entities, programs, events that have figureheads or crucial backbones that are rarely spoken of to the people; In the case of Bernays, maybe thats the point. Taking a psychological approach to the mass manipulation of the people in order to sell products is, on the surface, a pretty grim approach; an approach that advertisers and businesses aren’t and haven’t been so keen on letting the populace know. It is hard to say whether or not I , as a consumer, would like to know whether or not I am being swindled to my inner most desires and if that knowledge would even affect my decisions in the market. It makes me wonder if I really have any choices in the consumer market, if my hopes and inner desires are already known and the products at my disposal have been chosen accordingly.

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