Opening the door to the dark side of marketing


Related to Sigmund, Freud, Edward L. Bernays coined the term public relations. I was privileged to meet and spend time with Edward L. Bernays. I never met his wife, Doris Fleischman, but you had to imagine she was quite a person to compliment an intellect like his.

She was certainly the mother of public relations and deserves much more credit than she gets. Heir to the Fleischman Yeast fortune, -Doris, Edward would say was, more than his equal. She was his business partner, worked in the same consulting firm, and refused to take his name. Often left out of textbooks, her brilliance powered Edward, and often kept his darker side in check.

But Bernays did not say much of his early effort to communicate with American women. He proudly spoke of his “Green Ball” for American Tobacco – and of his “Torches of Freedom” effort. But he used his third party endorsement concept in another terrible way to sell cigarettes.

Before he broke in as a Broadway press agent, he worked as a medical editor – seeing how medical journals were published, and understanding how he could use them to change people’s minds. So, to get women to smoke, he figured all he had to do was get physicians to suggest that smoking would help keep them slim. In post WWI America – Bernays came up with something that haunts us to this day – that being very thin is true beauty. He paid America’s top photographer to shoot beautiful and thin women for leading magazines – all of them holding a cigarette. Doctors advised young women to reach for a cigarette instead of a sweet. They would further add that it was advisable to keep a package of cigarettes on hand to help resist the temptation of overeating.

While nowhere as brilliant as the Torches of Freedom campaign, the impact of this was more successful and changed thinking in America.

Bernays rarely told this side of the story – as he must have come to see the horrible damage and death this would cause. He said he regretted it –and would later work to try to undo the damage. But he had helped to unleash the dark side of public relations – and there was no way to put the genie back in the bottle.

Edward often spoke of PR as a profession. In fact he never called it PR – he had coined the term, and he used it as written. He was a supporter of the Public Relations Society of America- but thought that the APR was more like plumber’s title. Later in life, he argued for certification, not accreditation. He would explain that any idiot could say they “do PR” – and that idiot gave the profession a bad name. He would go on to joke that he had met a prostitute that claimed that she too worked in public relations… And he would lead an effort to require that PR practitioners do same thing as barbers, dentists and other tradesmen – get government certification. He even got bill to be introduced in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. If would fail, but he would go to his grave arguing for certification.

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