Factually solid ‘Father of Spin’ low on intellectual grist

Nine out of ten experts agree: we are living in a golden age of spin. The field of public relations, having only emerged as a profession at the turn of this century, has played an enormous role in consciously constructing public opinion. Larry Tye chronicles the life of one of the original spinmeisters in The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations.

Long before President Clinton was rubbing elbows with Hollywood types, a much earlier administration embraced star status for its public appeal. Always the devout PR man, Edward Bernays drove through the night to deliver Al Jolson and fellow Broadway stars directly from their New York stage to a White House Breakfast with Calvin Coolidge. Although – judging Coolidge’s popular legacy – Bernays efforts to enliven Coolidge’s image may have been in vain, this remarkable publicity stunt is characteristic of Bernays exceptional flare for high profile spectacle. Bold and pioneering in his own day, these tactics seem all too familiar in 1999.

While he was not the first practitioner of modern public relations, nor the most influential, Bernays made a substantial mark on the profession. Instead of advising his clients on how to change their product to suit the public, Bernays took an unconventional, circuitous route. He tried to shape public opinion to suit his clientele. When bacon producer, Beechnut Packaging Co. wanted to increase its lagging sales, Bernays convinced his client that the best approach would not be to further cannibalize the dwindling breakfast meat market. Rather, he suggested that they should dissuade housewives from feeding their families those new, cold cereals. By promoting a doctor-recommended, hearty breakfast, Bernays saved eggs and bacon from certain defeat at the hands of the great Kellogg menace. The big loser: America’s cholesterol clogged arteries.

Bernays’ big think approach has made him a legendary figure in public relations. His elaborate publicity stunts, although often of questionable success, were awesome feats of organization and ingenuity that have continued to inspire generations of spin doctors. When Proctor & Gamble hired Bernays to increase its sales of Ivory soap, he did not simply promote its cleansing attributes. Instead, he organized the National Soap Sculpture Contest. The craze swept the country, as kids of all ages hacked big chunks of the P&G product into boats, swans and various other kitsch, white sculptures. Not only did Bernays cause sales of Ivory to skyrocket, he earned the brand loyalty of a generation of future customers.

Proving that fact can be stranger than fiction – or at least more cleverly ironic – Bernays’ uncle was none other than Dr. Sigmund Freud. How appropriate it is that the man who would pioneer the engineering of the public’s latent needs and desires would share such close family ties with the father of the individual sub-conscious.

Unfortunately, Tye gives scant attention to the intellectual parallels between these two revolutionary thinkers. The relationship between nephew and uncle was never very close; the Atlantic Ocean came between Bernays and his extended Viennese family. However, Bernays idolized Freud and was an enthusiastic adherent to psycho-analytic theory. In his public relations work, Bernays often hired psychoanalysts to give him advice on developing strategies that would tap into the public’s vulnerable psyche. One of his most famous – or rather infamous – achievements was the destruction of the female tobacco-taboo, which was largely informed by cigarettes’ potential as a phallic symbol.

In 1928, Bernays was hired by the American Tobacco Company to find a way to penetrate the untapped female market. By social convention, fifty percent of the market was essentially non-smoking. American Tobacco realized a gold mine was waiting – if it could just get women to light up the company’s venerable Lucky Strikes. Bernays launched a multi-faceted campaign that proved to be a momentous marketing triumph in the history of public relations, albeit a devastating blow to women’s health.

The “Tobacco Society for Voice Culture” was established, and stars were commissioned to give testimonials of the voice-enhancing, throat-soothing qualities of Lucky Strikes. Women were advised to watch their figures and to use tobacco as a diet aid with slogans such as, “Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet.” But Bernays’ most trenchant and Freudian insight was his “Torches of Freedom” crusade. In the height of the jazz age, depicting cigarettes as a symbol of power and female liberation struck a resonant chord with women of the progressive, flapper culture. After Bernays was through, the popular conception of cigarette smoking had been transformed.

Bernays’ victory over the female tobacco taboo was one of his greatest successes, but it also was a source of ethical rebuke when questions arose regarding how much he really knew about the health-related dangers of cigarettes.

Questions of morality dogged Bernays throughout his career, and not without good reason. In the infamous “Banana Wars,” his firm played a pivotal role in convincing the public that a CIA-backed insurrection against the Guatemalan government, which greatly benefited the United Fruit Co., was actually a grassroots, democratic uprising. The suggestion that Joseph Goebbels based some of his Nazi propaganda on Bernays public relations theory, while no fault of his own, did not improve his reputation.

Bernays was a rugged soul who refused to be dismissed or shamed into obscurity. He lived to the ripe old age of 103 (he died in 1995) and spent much of his later life lecturing, writing and spinning his own legacy as a founding father of public relations. Tyes’ newspaper reporting background is evident in his straightforward, unadorned prose.

His meticulous survey of Bernays’ papers (over 800 boxes now in The Library of Congress) has allowed him to bridge the gap between Bernays’ often exaggerated claims and documented fact. In his blanket, bare-bones treatment of Bernays, Tye seems to have been reluctant to emphasize any particular themes of Bernays’ life. As a result some of the more intriguing subjects, such as his relationship with Freud and his political activity, seem inadequately addressed. Other mundane information fills pages upon pages but serves little other purpose.

While this biography is utterly frank in its depiction of Bernays’ successes and failures, the end result is not overly critical of the man. In fact, despite his many, glaring moral failures, you can not help admiring this slightly eccentric, self-promoting, but supremely talented “father of spin.”

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