The View from Here

At the dawn of mass media in America, technology and culture coincided in a way that would change society forever. Technological advances and government fear of the masses combined with the birth of psychology to form the base of modern-day media.

Everyone’s familiar with the work of Sigmund Freud by now, and mentioning his name typically leads to snickers and penis jokes. Much of what Freud presented as fact about human behavior and psychology during his career was completely ludicrous, and psychology in its modern form has done away with many of his most ridiculous ideas, which he was known for.

Gone are the days of diagnoses of penis envy and Oedipus complexes, but Freud’s legacy has had a bigger impact on society than most people realize. His nephew, Edward Bernays, is credited in his obituary as “the father of public relations.” Bernays combined his uncle’s theories on subconscious psychology with the crowd psychology theories of Gustave Le Bon and Wilfred Trotter.

His view of humanity as a whole was similar to that of Freud’s. He believed that people were, by nature, controlled by irrational, subconscious motives. As a result, his life’s work centered on methods to control, mitigate and capitalize on the dangerous, irrational mass subconscious of society. Early in his career, he worked with Woodrow Wilson on the Committee on Public Information, which was used to shape the opinions of Americans about World War 1.

Bernays accomplished some impressive feats of marketing and swaying of public opinion throughout his career. In the 1920’s, he popularized smoking for women while working for American Tobacco Company by sending models to march in the New York City parade and saying they were women’s rights activists. He informed the press that the “protestors” would light “torches of freedom” and had the models light Lucky Strike cigarettes on cue in front of photographers. By linking cigarettes to the emerging independence of women, female smokers ceased to be taboo and cigarette companies profited greatly.

Another highlight of Bernays’ career was his work with Beech-Nut Packing Company, also in the 1920s. Beech-Nut wanted to increase their bacon sales. Before bacon and eggs became staple breakfast foods, there was little emphasis on breakfast in the United States and Americans typically just drank coffee and orange juice with some toast. Bernays asked the practicing physician of his agency whether he considered a heavy breakfast to be healthier than a light breakfast. He said that it was, and then asked 5,000 other doctors, who confirmed it. This “study” made headlines throughout the nation paved the way for bacon and eggs to become staple breakfast foods. Beech-Nut’s profits rose considerably, and the stage was set for our modern day obsession with bacon, for no rational reason other than “because bacon is delicious.”

Bernays was able to mold public opinion in bigger ways as well and even worked to overthrow a government. The Guatemalan Revolution of 1944 overthrew the country’s dictator in favor of a democratically elected president with liberal capitalistic ideas. This presented a problem for United Fruit Company, who owned large amounts of land in the country, when the new government issued a decree that redistributed uncultivated portions of large land holdings to impoverished agricultural workers in exchange for compensation by the government to the land holders. Bernays fought back on the behalf of United Fruit Company by painting the democratically elected president of Guatemala as a communist, which was used to justify U.S. involvement. Ultimately, the new Guatemalan government was overthrown by the U.S. government, who installed and backed another dictator to replace the democratically elected president.

Propaganda and public hysteria about communism were what enabled this. Hundreds of people were executed following the coup, and a civil war eventually broke out.

This is the power of public relations and propaganda. Guatemala is still in upheaval to this day, and bacon is now a $4 billion industry.