As strange as it seems, until last night I’d never fully heard the story behind Edward Bernays, the man considered the “father of public relations”. Bernays combined ideas from crowd psychology with the fundamentals of marketing, to give PR real credibility. He called PR the “engineering of consent” and raised the following provocation:
“If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it? The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible, at least up to a certain point and within certain limits.”
When Philip Morris came to him in the 1920s at a loss to get women to buy cigarettes (as it was an imprisonable offence for women to smoke in public) he came up with an inspired solution. At the 1929
Easter parade in New York City, Bernays rebranded Lucky Strike cigarettes “Torches of Freedom” and paid glamorous models to hold them. Bernays publicised this event as an expression of women’s desire to claim freedom. Thus, re-framing cigarette smoking in women’s minds.
This reminds me of the story Rory Sutherland told about King Frederick the Great of Prussia’s successful rebranding of the potato. When his people would not eat potato, as a new staple to supplement more popular bread he came up with a Bernays style solution. He decreed the potato a royal vegetable, planted a royal field with potato plants and ordered his guards to protect them. Suddenly all the peasants of Russia wanted to get their hands on the prohibited and so desirable potatoes.
What Bernays and Frederick the Great both realised was that great PR can so often come down to the influence of others and clever contextualisation.
Thanks to my ever-inspiring friend Asad for telling me the story of Bernays.