How Edward Bernays Gets You to Buy Things You Didn’t Need: Propaganda, Feminism, Advertising & Capitalism Explained

Have you ever found yourself unboxing an online purchase and wondering why you bought it?

You’re not alone.

Approximately 84% of shoppers have made impulse purchases at some point, and these unplanned buys account for nearly 40% of all e-commerce spending.

This phenomenon isn’t just a product of digital-age consumerism but a legacy of Edward Bernays, the father of public relations. And one of the most important people of the 20th Century that you’ve never heard of.

His revolutionary approach transformed how products are marketed, making his insights as relevant today as they were a century ago.

Let’s uncover how Bernays’ strategies have led to our modern shopping habits and what lessons CEOs and Marketing Directors can draw from them.

Who Was Edward Bernays?

Edward Bernays, often dubbed the ‘father of public relations,’ was no ordinary marketer. His uncle, Sigmund Freud, influenced his understanding of the human psyche, which he ingeniously applied to mass communication.

Freud, a pivotal figure in psychology, profoundly impacted how we understand human behavior, particularly through his discovery of the unconscious mind.

Freud theorized that the unconscious part of our mind holds desires, memories, and knowledge that, while hidden from conscious awareness, significantly influence our behavior and personalities.

His insights into how these unconscious forces shape human behavior revolutionized psychology, providing essential tools for Edward Bernays to manipulate public opinion and market products. Bernays began his career shaping public opinion during World War I and quickly moved into commercial advertising.

Bernays was pivotal in transforming the concept of propaganda into a more sophisticated form known as public relations. Originally, the term “propaganda” referred to the dissemination of information and ideas, but it acquired a pejorative sense due to its manipulative use during World War I.

Bernays, recognizing the negative connotations of the term, rebranded his approach to focus on the more palatable notion of ‘public relations.’ He used strategic communication and psychological techniques to influence public perception and behavior subtly. This shift not only changed the language of influencing public opinion but also expanded its application from politics to commerce, setting the foundation for modern marketing practices.

Perhaps his most famous campaign, the “Torches of Freedom,” rebranded cigarette smoking for women by reshaping the narrative to position cigarettes as a symbol of feminist liberation, which had a profound impact on social norms and tobacco sales.

The “Torches of Freedom” Campaign

Edward Bernays’ “Torches of Freedom” campaign is a quintessential example of his innovative approach to public relations. In the 1920s, smoking was a taboo activity for American women, confined to private spaces and associated with moral impropriety. Bernays, hired by the American Tobacco Company, sought to break this social norm to open up a new market for cigarettes.

He orchestrated a dramatic public relations stunt during the 1929 Easter Sunday Parade in New York City. Bernays hired young, fashionable women to march in the parade and, at a predetermined moment, light up cigarettes in a defiant act of liberation. He cleverly branded the cigarettes as “torches of freedom,” linking smoking to the women’s suffrage movement as part of the broader storytelling narrative around the fight for gender equality.

This campaign capitalized on the public’s familiarity with feminist struggles and cleverly reframed smoking by inserting it into the story of feminism as a symbol of emancipation. The stunt was widely covered in newspapers, which Bernays ensured by tipping off the press. The result was a seismic shift in public perception, which not only normalized women smoking but also significantly boosted cigarette sales, marking a pivotal moment in the use of public relations to reshape social norms and consumer behavior.

The World Before Mass Market Brands

Prior to Bernays, advertising was straightforward and functional, focused on the utility of products. Soap was just soap, and a car, merely a means of transportation. Bernays introduced a radical idea: connecting products to personal identities and emotions. For instance, he promoted soap not merely as a cleaning product but as a key to beauty and purity. Cars became not just vehicles but symbols of status and freedom. This shift didn’t just sell products; it sold lifestyles and dreams.

Before the advent of mass market brands and globalization, consumer behavior was fundamentally different from today. People bought generic products primarily from local shops and markets. These products were often unbranded, and purchasing decisions were based on immediate needs and trust in local vendors, rather than on any broader brand loyalty or identity. The relationship between seller and buyer was personal and direct, deeply integrated within the community and its local economy.

The Shift Triggered by Mass Media

The consolidation of mass media marked a dramatic shift in how products were marketed and consumed. Initially, with the emergence of nationwide newspapers and later radio broadcasts, the reach of advertising expanded significantly. This shift allowed for a broader audience to be targeted, moving from hyper-local to national audiences. The invention of radio, followed by television, transformed advertising into a tool for mass persuasion, enabling brands to enter homes and influence a larger demographic.

Edward Bernays capitalized on these new media channels to implement his groundbreaking public relations strategies. For example, he utilized press releases and media-savvy events that were guaranteed to get newspaper and radio coverage, thereby amplifying his campaigns to a national scale. This was a novel idea at the time, fundamentally changing the relationship between brands and consumers.

The Impact of Globalization and the Internet

The advent of television further expanded the reach and effectiveness of advertising, embedding branded products into the fabric of popular culture through commercials and sponsorships of TV shows. After all soap operas get their name from the fact that it was soap companies sponsoring these female-focused shows.

However, it was the arrival of the internet that completed the transformation from hyper-local to hyper-global markets. The internet has enabled brands to reach a global audience with unprecedented precision and personalization, using digital advertising techniques that Bernays could only have dreamed of. These days, anyone can find a good video production agency in Bangkok to produce their content.

This evolution from local to global has allowed brands to not only sell products but also sell lifestyles and identities across cultural and national boundaries. Bernays’ foundational strategies of linking products with personal and emotional appeal laid the groundwork for modern marketing, where brands aspire to become integral components of personal identity and lifestyle on a global scale.

Modern Lessons from Bernays’ Approach

  1. Sell the Dream, Not the Product

Edward Bernays transformed marketing by selling dreams and identities packaged in stories, not just products. This approach is vividly seen in how Apple markets its products—not merely as electronic devices but as tools for creativity and innovation. This strategy is not about the specifications of the products but about how they make users feel empowered and avant-garde.

Similarly, Tesla doesn’t just sell cars; it sells a vision of the sustainable, cutting-edge future, making customers feel they are part of something larger than themselves.

Continuing this tradition, modern companies should focus on the aspirational aspects of their products. Luxury brands like Rolex are exemplary, marketing not just a watch, but a symbol of success and achievement. This approach elevates the product from a mere timekeeping device to an essential accessory for the successful individual. The marketing focuses heavily on the lifestyle and status that comes with owning a Rolex, thus selling a dream of luxury and exclusivity.

For marketing directors and CEOs, this means aligning products with the values and dreams of their target audience. It’s not just about what the product does, but what it represents in the customer’s life. This strategy requires deep understanding of the audience’s aspirations and designing marketing messages that resonate on a deeper, emotional level. These days that is often done through social media marketing and executive branding on LinkedIn.

  1. Make Your Audience the Hero

Bernays was a master at positioning the product as a solution to a societal or personal desire. In modern marketing, this translates into making the customer the hero of their own story. An excellent example of this is Nike’s marketing strategy which centers around the idea that anyone can be an athlete. Nike commercials often feature everyday people achieving personal milestones, alongside professional athletes, thus positioning their products as tools that help overcome personal challenges.

The StoryBrand framework, developed by Donald Miller, further emphasizes this approach by advising companies to tell stories which position their customers as the hero and their brand as the guide. This method has been successfully used by charity organizations like charity: water, which positions donors as crucial heroes in the mission to provide clean and safe drinking water to people in developing countries. The narrative is always about the donor’s impact, making their contribution feel heroic and vital.

For businesses, adopting this storytelling framework means crafting marketing messages that acknowledge the customer’s challenges and aspirations, and showing how their product or service can help achieve them. This not only enhances the value proposition but also builds a deeper connection with the audience, making them feel understood and supported.

  1. Emotional Connection is Key

Bernays knew the power of emotions in influencing public opinion and consumer behavior. Today, brands that successfully connect emotionally can secure a place in the heart of their consumers, much like Coca-Cola has with its focus on happiness and togetherness in its campaigns. These ads don’t just sell a drink; they sell warm, fuzzy feelings and the idea of shared moments, making Coca-Cola synonymous with joy and family gatherings.

Another poignant example is the use of nostalgia in marketing, as seen with Nintendo’s promotion of its classic games and consoles. By tapping into the nostalgia of adults who grew up with Nintendo products, the company not only re-engages its original audience but also introduces their timeless products to a new generation. This emotional connection through shared memories and joyous childhood moments creates a strong brand loyalty that transcends the functionality of the products themselves.

Emotion-driven marketing requires a nuanced understanding of the target audience’s values, desires, and experiences. By weaving these emotional threads into their campaigns, companies can create powerful narratives that resonate with consumers on a deeper level, encouraging loyalty and advocacy for the brand.

Conclusion: Embracing Bernays’ Legacy in Modern Marketing

As we’ve explored the groundbreaking strategies of Edward Bernays, it’s clear that his influence on modern marketing is profound and enduring. From crafting campaigns that re-shape social norms to positioning products as symbols of identity and aspiration, Bernays’ techniques are more relevant than ever in a world dominated by digital media and global brands. For CEOs and Marketing Directors looking to elevate their brands, adopting these timeless principles can lead to more engaging storytelling and effective marketing strategies.

At Lexicon, we specialize in leveraging the power of digital storytelling to connect brands with their audiences. If you’re ready to transform your marketing approach and make your brand a beloved part of your customers’ lives, reach out to us at Lexicon. Let’s make your brand’s story unforgettable.

About the Author

David Norcross is an award-winning LinkedIn & marketing & Executive Branding expert with over 15 years of experience in the industry and over 20,000 followers on LinkedIn. He’s the founder and CEO of Lexicon as well as the Chairman of the British Chamber of Commerce in Thailand Marketing & Communications Committee.

Lexicon is an award-winning brand storytelling agency focusing on telling impactful stories for clients based in Thailand and South East Asia.


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