Industry Overview: The History of Spin

by | March 31, 2009

Many of today's major PR firms were founded in the period directly following the war, and the basic groundwork of the industry was laid by the founders of those firms. The business as we know it was largely the brainchild of Edward Bernays, the fabled "Father of Spin." The nephew of Sigmund Freud, Bernays is said to have inherited the famed psychoanalyst's knack for understanding human behavior. He also possessed a trait critical to the PR business - the ability to anticipate changes in public opinion. Early in his career, he worked as a press agent for the theatre. As a member of the CPI, he helped sell the war as an effort to "Make the World Safe for Democracy." In 1919, Bernays set up shop in New York, calling himself a "public relations counselor," and handled communications and marketing-related "persuasion projects" for clients including the U.S. War Department and the American Tobacco Company. For the former, he convinced businesses to hire returning war veterans. For the latter, he created a campaign to convince women that smoking helped them to stay slim. He claimed smoking also disinfected the mouth, and went on to paint cigarettes as figurative "torches of freedom" for women, encouraging them to contest the taboo against female smoking in public by marching down Fifth Avenue on Easter Day in 1929, cigarettes in hand.

Bernays published the first book on the PR profession, Crystallizing Public Opinion, in 1922. He felt that the average man is an intellectually limited, conformist creature, so it was up to the intellectual elite to mold public opinion. He felt that the so-called "intelligent few" were essentially social scientists who could guide the masses and influence history by applying the theories of mass psychology to corporate and political agendas. Not surprisingly, Bernays was approached for counsel by both Adolf Hitler and Spain's Francisco Franco ? and turned both down. An Austrian-born Jew, Bernays reportedly lamented the fact that Joseph Goebbels, the notorious Nazi propagandist, kept a copy of Crystallizing Public Opinion on his desk.

~Bernays pioneered the practice of promoting corporate agendas through social causes. In his own words, he helped his clients "create events and circumstances from which favorable publicity would stem." To that end, he developed "public service" agendas for unnamed corporate sponsors. After WWI, for example, he was called upon to help an ailing hair net company. Bernays urged labor commissioners to require women who worked with machinery to wear hair nets for their safety and waitresses to wear them in the interests of hygiene. He never named the hair net company, but sales improved. To help sell one client's bacon, he published a survey of 5,000 doctors who agreed that Americans should eat big breakfasts. He later orchestrated "Light's Golden Jubilee," a global media event in celebration of the invention of the light bulb, which was ghost-sponsored by General Electric.

Filed Under: Job Search


International Information: Part I Is It OK to Have a Drink When a Would-Be Employer Is Host?

Vault welcomes your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful of other readers. Review our User Guidelines.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Career Update Newsletter

Tips and tools to help you manage your ideal career.