Marketing, as we know it today, was not always like this. Its advent was detrimental to human psychology. Understanding where it came from and how it works is the same as understanding how to maintain your insecurity.
It all started in the 1920s, when tobacco had just passed the 300 billion mark in consumption . At that time, it was considered inappropriate for women to smoke in public. The few who indulged were frowned upon and judged for their actions. This activity, which consisted of burning a substance and inhaling the smoke through the mouth, was entirely reserved for men…
… until George Washington Hill, the CEO of the American Tobacco Company, decided to hire Edward Bernays, a young marketer with crazy ideas, to help him figure out how his company could tap into the female half of the market. He told Bernays: “If we can break into this market, it will be like opening a new gold mine right in our front yard.”.
This would be Bernays’ mission and raison d’être for the next 30 years. Before we discuss his impact on human psychology and insecurity, let’s find out who Edward Bernays was.
Who was Edward Bernays?
Born in Austria on 22 November 1891, Edward Bernays was one of the first leaders in the field of public relations . He devised and developed numerous techniques for influencing public opinion. Over the years, he has been instrumental in developing opinion-forming methods that have been used by many companies and governments around the world. In other words, this man has been one of the most influential men in the creation of a new civilisation shaped by new rules of thought and action.
This new civilisation began with the marketing and advertising revolution in the 1920s.
Bernays’ revolution of the marketing and advertising world
In the early 20th century, marketing was simply seen as a way of communicating the tangible and real benefits of a product in the simplest and most concise form possible. When someone wanted to buy a bottle of wine, for example, the seller had to explain why their wine was the best on the market (fermentation, unique ingredients, etc.). In those days, most people believed that customers bought based on facts and accurate information.
Edward Bernays thought differently. He believed that people were fundamentally irrational and made unconscious decisions based on their emotions. He believed that in order to get women to smoke, smoking had to be transformed into a positive, emotional experience by reshaping the cultural perceptions around smoking.
And so it came to pass on March 31, 1929. At the Easter parade that day in New York, a group of women led by a young woman named Bertha Hunt went out into the Fifth Avenue crowd and lit a Lucky Strike cigarette. The press had been informed in advance of their actions and had received pamphlets with relevant information. What the women did not know was that Hunt was Bernays’ secretary and that this action was the first in a series of events aimed at getting women to smoke.
Bernays went on to tell reporters that these women were not just lighting cigarettes, but “torches of freedom”, demonstrating their ability to assert their own independence and personality.
It was all fake, of course. However, Bernays presented it as a political demonstration because he knew it would trigger the right emotions in women across the country. According to him: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of… It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.” .
After all, the time also seemed right for such an escalation. Women had just won the right to vote a decade earlier. They were now working outside the home and becoming increasingly integrated into the economic life of their country. They saw themselves as the first generation who could behave independently of a man. So all it took was the ability to link the “smoking = freedom” message with the women’s empowerment movement to double tobacco sales.
Bernays managed to do this with his “Lusky Strike”. Women began to smoke and to suffer from lung cancer as well.
Over the next two decades, Bernays revolutionised the marketing industry by chaining together strategies of all kinds. Paying celebrities to use your product was his idea. Writing fake articles that subtly promoted products was his. Organising public events to attract the attention of customers was also his idea. Almost every form of marketing or advertising that we are all subjected to today started with Bernays.
Now you’re probably going to say, “But where did Bernays get all his ideas from?
The source of Bernays’ ideas
A biographical sketch of Bernays reveals that he was the nephew of one of the most influential and controversial minds of the 20th century: Sigmund Freud.
Born on 8 May 1856, Freud was an Austrian neurologist. He is also the founder of psychoanalysis, a method used to treat mental disorders through dialogue . His theories were among the first to assert that most human decisions were primarily unconscious and irrational. His research established that human insecurities drove people to excess and made them easily manipulated. Through him, Bernays understood something that no one else in the business world had ever understood before: “If you can tap into people’s insecurities and stir up their deepest feelings of inadequacy, they will buy just about anything you put in front of them.”
This business vision has become the model for all advertising today. Sports shoes are marketed by associating overcoming yourself, perseverance in effort and sports stars such as Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, etc. Cars are marketed by their ability to make your life less cumbersome and to ensure your safety. Cars are marketed as making your life less cumbersome and safer. Clothes are now marketed on your ability to confidently express your uniqueness and distinctiveness.
It’s all part of marketing these days. When I wanted to launch a marketing campaign for the Gulpes app, I was told to find people’s ‘weaknesses’, subtly aggravate them and then go back to them and make them believe that my product is the perfect product that will solve the problem they are going through.
Of course I didn’t! It took me a while to realize that the message conveyed by marketing campaigns ends up reshaping society. Indeed, if marketing constantly tries to make humans believe that they have a major problem to solve, then they will end up living in a culture that insists on their weaknesses and vulnerabilities and wants to overcompensate for them in one way or another…
… until the day when the world, if only a handful of humans, decide otherwise.
And when that time comes, remember this content.
- Published by Statista Research Department, & 2015, March 18. (1970, March 19). World cigarette consumption 1880-2014. Statista. https://fr.statista.com/statistiques/571586/consommation-mondiale-de-cigarettes-1880/
- “Edward L. Bernays ” Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved April 15, 2021 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/edward-l-bernays
- William Kremer, “James Buchanan Duke: Father of the Modern Cigarette,” BBC World Service. November 13, 2012, http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-20042217
- Bernays, Edward L. Bernays, Propaganda (Brooklyn, NY: Ig Publishing, 1928).
- Jay, M. Evan (2021, May 2). Sigmund Freud. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sigmund-Freud