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Home arrow Business & Finance arrow Building a business of politics the rise of political consulting and the transformation of American democracy

Origins of a New Profession

Edward L. Bernays began his career working as a publicity man and theatrical press agent in New York City, where he developed a talent for turning social and political issues into commercial opportunities for his clients. In 1913, Bernays helped promote a play entitled Damaged Goods about a man with syphilis who marries and fathers a syphilitic child. The play caused something of a sensation as it challenged contemporary mores about sexually transmitted disease; promoting it was a risky enterprise at a time when Anthony Comstock was the secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. In order to raise money for the production, Bernays established the Sociological Fund Committee, a strategy aimed at attracting reform-minded elites who saw the play as a way to break down societal taboos that inhibited social reform. With the help of Bernays, the play became a cause celebre, gaining the support of John D. Rockefeller Jr., Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and other notables whose involvement kept Comstock at bay.60

During the war, Bernays completed a stint with the Committee on Public Information, heading a local office in Latin America. Upon his return to the United States, Bernays orchestrated several spectacular events that established his reputation in the emerging field of public relations. Working on behalf of the American Tobacco Company during the 1920s, he devised a campaign to increase the feminine appeal of cigarettes. This was no easy task at a time when smoking by women was considered a sign of loose morals. Building on the cresting movement for voting rights, Bernays organized a march up Fifth Avenue in New York City in which women smoked Lucky Strike cigarettes and evoked the image of the Statue of Liberty by calling on their suffragette sisters to “carry the torch of freedom.”61 A few years later, Bernays helped plan “Light’s Golden Jubilee,” a worldwide media celebration commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the light bulb. Organized on behalf of General Electric, these events were “meticulously staged to look like a spontaneous tribute.”62 In another public relations coup, Bernays enlisted the support of prominent doctors to recommend eating bacon for breakfast (his client, Beechnut Packing Company, was a large meatpacking concern). The success of these strategies hinged on concealing the effort behind them, prompting the author Larry Tye to dub Bernays “the father of spin.”63

The underlying cynicism in these methods was not lost on contemporary critics, some of whom saw in Bernays evidence of a public easily manipulated by words and symbols. One profile of Bernays called him “a stern realist who operates upon the demonstrable theory that men in a democracy are sheep waiting to be led to the slaughter.”64 Another described publicity experts like Bernays as “the medicine man of the industrial tribe, whose spells and incantations work wonders which, like all religious mysteries, are either absurd or incredible when viewed by the rational mind.”65

Bernays was well aware of these concerns, but his own experience with US propaganda efforts during the war left him deeply interested in the psychological effects of mass communication, what Bernays described as “the impact words and pictures made on the minds of men.”66 Inspired by Walter Lippmann’s thinking about the ephemeral nature of public opinion, Bernays came to see his own techniques selling cigarettes or publicizing plays as manufacturing consent in ways Lippmann described. In his book Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923), Bernays drew frequently (and rather freely) from Lippmann’s writing, describing the job of the public relations counsel as “crystallizing the obscure tendencies of the public mind.” But if Lippmann explained why mass persuasion was possible in theory, Bernays sketched out how such work should be carried out in practice by “building public acceptance for an idea or product.”67

In fact, Bernays saw his talents extending well beyond the realm of advertising. “Whether it is in cigarettes, or in a political movement, or an infant’s food, it is necessary to recognize mass opinion,” Bernays was quoted as saying.68 Political campaigns, in particular, struck Bernays as “archaic and ineffective” for lacking “the expert use of propaganda” needed to “meet the conditions of the public mind.”69 To meet this need, Bernays argued for the application of modern business methods to the practice of political work. As a contemporary put it, “A political campaign ... is a selling campaign. It is a drive for votes just as Ivory Soap advertising is a drive for sales.”70 This required a “supersalesman” rather than “the old-type political manager” to “sell” the candidate “just as a problem in the marketing of toothpaste would be handled.”71 The utility of propaganda did not end with the election. “Campaigning is only an incident in political life. The process of government is continuous,” Bernays observed. Consequently, “The expert use of propaganda is more useful and fundamental . as an aid to democratic administration, than as an aid to vote getting.”72 In a 1925 speech to the National Municipal League on “crystallizing public opinion for good government,” Bernays insisted that with the right techniques, “good government can be sold to a community just as any other commodity can be sold.”73 Anticipating the future role of political consultants in the White House, Bernays told an audience at a meeting of the American Political Science Association that a special adviser, “independent of the various departments and responsible only to the President,” was needed to coordinate publicity functions, “so that the public would receive a constant and integrated picture of government activities.”74

For Bernays, Lippmann offered a response to those critics who saw propaganda as a cynical attempt to manipulate the public; instead, propaganda was an inescapable feature of contemporary life and, in the hands of trained experts, a crucial instrument of democratic practice. Seeing himself in this role, Bernays endeavored to establish himself as a new kind of professional whose skills were indispensable in a modern democratic polity. “Due to the complexity of modern life,” Bernays argued, “a knowledge of the workings of public opinion and a knowledge of the media that carry ideas to the public is basic to anyone who depends on the public for success.”75 Like Lippmann, Bernays drew a very different lesson from the recent past: “The astounding success of propaganda [during the war] opened the eyes of the intelligent few in all departments of life to the possibilities of regimenting the public mind.”76 Bernays insisted that, far from a threat to democratic government, “opinion-management is one of the most vital forces today, especially in preserving democracy.”77 Accordingly, Bernays set out to explain to a wider public how “the growth and importance of this new profession” he hoped to create was in fact “the very essence of the democratic process, the freedom to persuade and suggest.”78

Bernays staked out this professional claim against the backdrop of important developments in the social sciences and an emerging group of scholars trying to understand the sources of individual beliefs and their relation to political behavior. For those at the forefront of this behavioral turn in the study of politics, propaganda was a worthy intellectual pursuit that offered crucial insights into the nature and sources of mass opinion. This behavioral turn also brought scholars and practitioners together, forging a partnership that would play an important role in the development of political consulting. For Edward Bernays, connections with prominent academics not only furthered a search for more sophisticated techniques but also advanced a set of professional goals that were both lofty and mundane.

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