I’ve just found a concise piece from NPR radio on Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, who used his uncle’s ideas on the unconscious to transform advertising into its current form.
Bernays pretty much invented the idea that you can sell products, not by making their practical advantages known, but by associating them with the satisfaction of desires – to be sexy, successful, a good husband or wife, the need to feel safe, well-regarded and so on.
Every time you see razors sold as babe magnets, or perfume sold as booty dust, that’s Bernays’ ideas at work.
He also invented the idea that marketing was more than just adverts. It could also be presented as ‘education’ that had no direct connection with a product but made people more receptive to other marketing.
Almost any sponsored survey or research you see in press, especially if masquerading as science, is based on this idea.
For example, Pfizer fund a survey that says people over 40 are having the best sex. People over 40 not having great sex wonder what they could do about it.
Hey, that’s my favourite B-list celebrity! And he’s telling me that Pfizer sell a pill aimed at the over-40s that claims to improve my sex life. My problem solved, through the power of science!
Of course, it’s not just hard-on pills [note to self: that’s not a phrase I get to use often enough]. It’s now a tried and tested technique that has been used for selling everything from igloos to ideologies.
Indeed, Bernays was personally involved in selling political ideas as well as commercial products. Notably, in his book Propoganda, he argues that this form of manipulation is essential for managing the inherent chaos and destructive forces of society.
Film-maker Adam Curtis cited Bernays as one of the most influential people of the 20th century in his persuasive, if not slightly polemic, four-part series Century of the Self (available online: 1, 2, 3, 4). It contains many more examples of Bernays’ often ingenious PR campaigns.
The NPR piece is a short 10 minute introduction to Bernays’ life and work, and the site has a some additional audio clips of Bernays himself discussing his ideas.
Link to ‘Freud’s Nephew and the Origins of Public Relations’.
Parts one, two, three, four of Century of the Self.
Link to online Bernays exhibit from the Museum of Public Relations.