The average human is exposed to thousands of adverts every single day.
Think of some of the famous slogans and catchphrases you’ve seen over the years (let me know any of particularly memorable ones in the comments!) and I bet your brain will be flooded with adverts from both today and yesteryear.
But you only remember only a tiny, tiny percentage of the adverts you’ve seen in your life. Upwards of 90% of the ads you’ve ever laid eyes on in your life will be forgotten soon after you see them. Adverts have become a part of life as regular to us as breathing, eating, and sleeping.
This was, of course, a group effort – no one man or woman is responsible for the over saturation of ads that has become part and parcel of the modern human existence.
There was, however, one person who, more than anyone, was the catalyst – Edward Bernays.
Bernays was the nephew of famous psychologist Sigmund Freud. Using his uncle’s work as a springboard, Bernays revolutionised everything people thought about marketing at the time.
He was the first to utilize the power of people’s insecurities in order to get them to buy a product.
Born in 1891 to a Jewish family in Vienna, the Bernays family moved to the United States shortly after Edward’s birth. In 1912, Edward graduated from Cornell University with a degree in agriculture. Realising his talents lay in the media rather than farming, Bernays pursued a career in journalism instead.
The 1920s proved to be a pivotal decade for not only Bernays, but the world in general.
War was out, jazz was in. People were changing. Attitudes were changing. Technology was changing by the day – it seemed like there was a new piece of equipment being invented daily. Society seemed to be on the up.
Women never smoked in those days. It was seen as unfeminine and unsexy to do so, and, as a result, cigarette companies were missing out on half the population. There were millions of dollars of untapped potential just laying on the table – and it seemed like it was going to remain that way.
This is where Bernays came in.
Bernays realised that people made emotional decisions when buying products just as often as pragmatic ones – if not more.
He concluded that people were naturally irrational and they could be easily persuaded by a careful string-pulling at their emotions. Women had just got the right to vote – centuries of under-representation and oppression were over, and women had become a pivotal force in society during the war effort.
Bernays thought there was no better way to exploit this by encouraging women to tear down another prejudice – the right to smoke.
Using the tagline ”torches of freedom” – Bernays transformed cigarettes into a flaming representation of liberation. Cigarettes now went hand in hand with the feeling of freedom – and sales shot up as a result.
He also insinuated that cigarette use was linked to physical beauty. It’s always been known that cigarette use stunts the appetite, so Bernays marketed them as an effective weight-loss tool. His adverts (like the one above) often featured thin, attractive women.
This accomplished two things – it made cigarettes seem healthy and it also made women feel self-conscious about their own bodies.
Edward Bernays had uncovered an asset that could be easily bought and sold – insecurity.
Make people feel like shit and they’ll buy anything you want them to – cars, alcohol, cigarettes, clothes – you name it. Edward Bernays is the principal reason why adverts are so adept at appealing to our inadequacies. Car adverts are often marketed to people’s emotions – wanna feel masculine? buy a truck. Wanna feel feminine? Buy a Mini. Wanna feel like a responsible, family-orientated person? Check out the Range Rover in the back.
The actual practicality of these products is secondary – whether or not the car makes you feel complete is the most important factor.
Is it a sleazy tactic? Yes. Were these philosophies used by abhorrent, despicable people – like the Nazis? Sadly, yes. The power of emotional propaganda was used liberally by the the Nazis, and they credited Bernays when they used them.
Bernays, for better or worse, is seen as the father of public relations. He’s the reason why the term exists in the first place – as the emotional presence of companies is now understood to be a huge component in their overall success. The synthesis of product and emotion was a Bernays invention and, regardless if you had heard of him before today or not, he has influenced all of our lives in all sorts of different ways.
He died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1995, at the age of 103.
I wonder what made him live so damn long.
It certainly wouldn’t have been the cigarettes.