Excerpt from Wendell Potter, “Deadly Spin”

While [Ivy] Lee is considered by many to be the father of modern public relations, a contemporary of his, the flamboyant Edward Bernays, engineered some of the most far-reaching, successful, and outlandish PR campaigns in history. He was derided by many of his colleagues for his brazen tactics and tireless self-promotion, but there is no doubt he was proud of his work. Bernays kept almost all of the notes and documents that crossed his desk during a career that spanned eighty years, and he left more than eight hundred boxes of them to the Library of Congress, with the stipulation that they be made public only after his death.

Bernays was said to think of himself as a “unique counselor” to organizations, someone who melded the influence of the media with the science of psychology. He is generally credited with coining the term “public relations counselor,” which he used in his 1923 book, Crystallizing Public Opinion, the first book devoted to PR. He also taught the first class on public relations, at New York University in 1923. Bernays’s skill with the media was the result of dogged work and innate talent, but his bent toward psychology was grounded in family—he was a nephew of Sigmund Freud, with whom he had a close relationship.

Bernays was sophisticated and, like Lee, well educated. He was born in Vienna in 1891 but grew up in New York City. His first job after graduating from Cornell was as a writer and editor for a medical journal. From there, he ventured to Broadway, where he was a press agent for a variety of productions and celebrities, including Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky and Italian tenor Enrico Caruso. The Roaring Twenties brought profitability to a large number of new or revitalized industries, including one that became a mainstay for Bernays: tobacco. The American Tobacco Company, manufacturer of Lucky Strike, the United States’ fastest-growing cigarette brand, was one of his biggest clients. Bernays said later that the head of American Tobacco, George Washington Hill, was determined to expand his company by tapping the potential of the women’s market. The percentage of women smokers had been rising since the Great War, but Hill wanted to pick up the pace.

According to Bernays, it was Hill’s idea to tout cigarettes as a low-calorie alternative to sweets. Bernays orchestrated a campaign that equated cigarettes with slenderness, grace, and beauty. He enlisted third-party “experts” to warn against the adverse effects of desserts, in terms of both weight gain and tooth decay, and to declare that cigarettes were a great alternative and could do everything from clean your teeth to make you a better dancer. Bernays’s staff even distributed menus that substituted cigarettes for desserts. Despite some backlash against Bernays and American Tobacco, Hill wrote to Bernays in December 1928 that the company’s revenue was up by thirty-two million dollars that year and that sales of Lucky Strikes had increased more than those of all other brands combined.

Even so, Hill was still dissatisfied with the number of women smokers in 1929. His insistence that Bernays come up with a way to get women to smoke outdoors as well as indoors led to the PR man’s most notorious staged event. Bernays obtained a list of New York City debutantes and invited each one to join other women demonstrating their support for the equality of the sexes by walking together in the city’s Easter Parade on Fifth Avenue in 1929. Additional women were recruited through ads signed by prominent local advocates of women’s rights. All the information stressed that as the women walked, they would light symbols of equality, their “torches of freedom”—cigarettes.

The carefully scripted event went without a hitch, despite fewer than a dozen women showing up. Photos of them—defiant, stylishly dressed female smokers making their way through the parade—were published across the country, and several “torches of freedom” marches followed in support. Women, in other words, took the bait and proclaimed their determination to squelch the old taboo against smoking as the start of a movement to establish their equality with men.

Recounting the event in The Father of Spin, author Larry Tye explains that Bernays almost always failed to point out that the campaign was funded by American Tobacco and that letters used to recruit participants never mentioned the source of the idea or the funding behind it. Ironically, Bernays, who lived to be 103, supposedly never smoked and once admitted that he did not like the taste of tobacco. “I prefer chocolate,” he said.

Bernays, better than anyone, demonstrated the successful adaptation of wartime PR and propaganda techniques for use in postwar and depression-era America, but these increasingly brazen efforts did not go unnoticed or unopposed. Between 1937 and 1942, the Institute for Propaganda Analysis worked to expose domestic propaganda that the group considered a potential threat to American democracy. Although the name itself sounds like propaganda, the IPA was a legitimate organization, created “to teach people how to think rather than what to think.” Made up mostly of social scientists and journalists, it published newsletters that “examined and exposed manipulative practices by advertisers, businesses, governments, and other organizations” and sponsored related programs within high schools, colleges, and civic groups. It had no political affiliation.

Although the group was disbanded during World War II (reportedly because of the wartime conundrum of examining not only enemy propaganda but Allied tactics as well), the IPA left a notable legacy: its list of eight “Rhetorical Tricks” used by propagandists remains strikingly relevant to PR today. It includes the following basic propaganda/PR ploys:

1. Fear. Organizations with the most to lose are most likely to resort to fearmongering. Their information may mention the loss of jobs, a threat to public health, or a general decline in social values, standard of living, or individual rights. It may also vilify a specific cause or even a specific person in order to create the desired point of view.

2. Glittering generalities. This approach arouses strong, positive emotions by using words and phrases like “democracy,” “patriotism,” and “American way of life.” Virtually all types of organizations use the tactic to create support for themselves, but when combined with negative messaging, the implications can be insidious.

3. Testimonials. Celebrities or recognized experts are frequently recruited or hired to provide testimonials about a product, cause, company, organization, or candidate. Good examples are the photos of famous athletes on Wheaties boxes and the endorsements of causes of all stripes (from animal rights to the right to own guns) by actors and musicians.

4. Name-calling. Blatant insults can be a very effective public relations tool. The organization doing the name-calling may associate the target of the insults with a negative or unpopular cause or person. Defending against name-calling can be difficult. Negativetend to stick, even if they are undeserved.

5. Plain folks. Anytime a business executive poses with rank-and-file employees or customers, he or she is claiming to be “of the people.” The same goes for politicians who attempt to identify themselves with their constituents; with every election cycle come the candidates who claim to be “Washington outsiders” even if they’ve been in office for years. Being identified with “plain folks” is both good business and good politics, but it raises the possibility of being labeled a hypocrite.

6. Euphemisms. PR practitioners often select words that obscure the real meaning of actions or concepts. The tactic is sometimes called “doublespeak.” For instance, an employee may be “transitioned” rather than “fired,” and a “lie” may be called a “strategic misinterpretation.”

7. Bandwagon. The overriding bandwagon message is that everyone else is doing or supporting this—and you should, too. Opinion polls can create the impression that a large percentage of people are on the bandwagon, but poll results may reflect only a designated sliver of the population, and they can be shaped in advance by structuring questions to trigger an expected response.

8. Transfer. Similar to testimonials, the transfer approach involves the approval of a respected individual or organization. The IPA described transfer as “a device by which the propagandist carries over the authority, sanction, and prestige of something we respect and revere to something he would have us accept.”

Potter, Wendell (2010-11-09). Deadly Spin (p. 53). Bloomsbury. Kindle Edition.

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