Releasing the Desires of the Crowd
IT SEEMED AS THOUGH each of the guests at Edward L. Bernays' 90th birthday party last Sunday was having his own personal celebration. Over 300 had come from all over America and the world, wanting both to celebrate Bernays' 9th decade and to reaffirm their friendships with him. Bernays, founder of the public relations profession and nephew of Sigmund Freud, was having hundreds of parties all at once. Adopting his favorite professorial stance, Bernays had this to say about becoming ninety: "We have a chronological age, a physiological age, a mental, societal and emotional age. To be sure, my chronological age is ninety.... My physician tells me my physiological age is sixty-three. Mentally and socially, I feel no older than when I was fifty, and as to my emotional age discretion forbids my calculating that here." (Anyone in doubt should note that Bernays danced until three a.m. at last year's Hasty Pudding Ball, only to remark with childlike enthusiasm, "What's next?".
Bernays has achieved what few people can--a synthesis of livelihood with personal predilection. His uncanny ability for understanding human motivations, and for thoughtfully encouraging people to reveal themselves to him, is at once the basis of his character and the foundation upon which he helped to create modern public opinion itself.
The mass mind is, to Bernays, a subject of perpetual fascination. His uncle, Freud, to whom he had intimate access, stood as Bernays' intellectual ideal, but while the Viennese doctor was interested in releasing the pent-up libido of the individual, his American nephew is engaged in releasing and "engineering" the supressed desires of the crowd. In applying these ideas to American conditions for the first time, Bernays has proven that the public can be "brought to accept" anything from a Presidential personality to a new breakfast food.
ALTHOUGH HE WAS unaware of its significance at the time, Bernays carried out the first public relations event in 1913, when he helped the actor Richard Bennet produce the play "Damaged Goods," which dealt with sex education and the dangers of syphilis. By winning the support of several prominent New York socialites, Bernays turned the show into a smash hit on Broadway and generated a flood of social concern over the dangers of the disease.
It was only after serving with the Committee for Public Information during World War I that Bernays realized that "propaganda efforts were so effective" that they "could be applied to peacetime pursuits." "It was war," Bernays writes in his memoirs, "which opened the eyes of the intelligent few to the possibilities of regimenting the modern mind." In the years after the war, Bernays worked to combine the methods of market research, polls and symbols, with the strategy and tactics necessary to create an "overt act," what today we call the media event. By staging overt acts Bernays feels he went beyond protraying his clients dreams as reality; he actually made them reality. "Actions cannot lie," says Bernays, meaning that all overt acts, although they may seem artificial, retain their own power and meaning.
Bernays is acutely aware of the potential dangers of "the engineering of consent." A man who believes in democracy (indeed, he seems to use the word at least a half a dozen times a day) Bernays was dismayed when he learned that Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, displayed a copy of his Propaganda in his library. Bernays wrote in the 1928 book that "the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses" is the mechanism by which the true wielders of power rule a country. "They were going after the thing on a scientific basis," says Bernays. "I felt very badly but I couldn't do anything about it. After all you can take a computer and if you put it into the hands of a crook he can take $14 million out of a bank."
Bernays insists that it is the responsibility of the public relations counsel to "set social values before monetary goals," and insure that projects are "in the public interest." In the long run, though, Bernays believes that the "cure for propaganda is more propaganda." "The whole society," he argues, becomes more "literate through the greater distribution of ideas by the new technologies of communications"--catalysts of a new enlightenment.
ONE COULD EASILY conclude from speaking with Bernays that public relations emerged merely as a side-effect of his unending attempts to understand the entire universe of human relations.
Bernays thrives upon the constant flood of visitors to his white clapboard mansion on Lowell Street in Cambridge. Always a gathering place for diverse individuals, the Bernays home is like a laboratory for experimentation in the theory of democratic pluralism. Bernays and his "twenty-four hour a day companion in married life," the late Doris Fleischman, would summon at once "a union head, a colonel in the army, the editor of a left-to-center paper and an artist." "Conformity is a sin," according to Bernays, "even at parties."
Dinner at Eddie's inevitably begins with the sound of a cork popping from a bottle of Asti Spumante. "We call it lemonade," he remarks with a grin. As he pours the spirits so Bernays, begins his outpouring of questions. He plays at once the inquisitor and the humorist, drawing people out of their shells of self-consciousness to see what they are made of Subtly, he demands the intimacy of everyone whom he encounters. The topic of discussion turns to Harvard. "The university," lectures Bernays, "is suffering from a cultural time lag of about four hundred years, since the time of the Reformation!" Bernays argues that Harvard perpetuates an artificial and harmful distinction between the students academic life and their broader human experience. He points to "The Real World" column in The Harvard Crimson as a manifestation of this delineation. Bernays fears that students' failure to consider the importance of the larger society will prevent them from successfully applying what they know. "Unless you know what people want, and what their attitudes are," he says. "you can't move ahead."