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Edward Bernays - The Father of Desire

Edward Bernays

The desire to own the latest model of smart phone or the newest and most fashionable pair of shoes is thought of as completely natural but, believe it or not, there was a time when people had no desire for things that did not have a logical and necessary place in their lives. The shift from simply needing to wanting has completely shaped modern society and culture and it was almost entirely devised and orchestrated by a man who is almost unknown – Edward Bernays, the nephew to the renowned psychotherapist Sigmund Freud.

Edward Bernays started his fascinating career working for the propaganda arm of the Woodrow Wilson administration in WW1. After the war, the strong and wealthy American corporations were scared that people would soon stop buying things and that production would cease, simply because they would have already purchased everything they could ever need. Bernays, inspired by his uncle’s new book ‘A General Introduction to Psycho Analysis’ and his experience in the propaganda business, set about trying to appeal to people’s unconscious and make them consume in a way that had never been seen before, and on mass.

Up until this point in history, products were not marketed to consumers in the way that we think of as being the norm today. Companies would advertise their products based on their functional place in people’s lives. It was assumed that nobody would buy something that they did not need and this rational thought process was considered unshakable. Shoes were sold based on their durability and comfort and cars for their function.

Functional Shoes

A banker called Paul Mazur of Lehman Brothers envisioned a very different future: “We must shift America from a ‘needs’ to a ‘desires’ culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things before the old has been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs". Edward Bernays would become the pioneer of this new way of marketing. He would show corporations how to make this happen by linking mass-produced goods to their unconscious desires.

One of the first campaigns that Bernays carried out was convincing women to smoke cigarettes. Up until this point, there was an enormous social taboo associated with women smoking, all over the globe. Bernays was approached one day, early on in his career in public relations, by the President of the American Tobacco Corporation. He told Bernays that he was losing 50% of his potential profit and that he wanted him to fix it. Armed with a blank cheque, he set about planning his campaign.

Bernays chose the 1929 Easter Day Parade as the day to launch his campaign. He organised a large group of young, attractive and wealthy women to hide cigarettes on their person and, upon his signal, light them while marching through the streets. Of course, professional photographers hired by Bernays were on hand to capture the moment and the whole event was seen as a protest for equality for women, with the cigarettes in their hands that Bernays had cleverly named their ‘torches of freedom’. Overnight women began smoking because they wanted to be independent and challenge male authority. Bernays had vastly increased profits for his client, and this was only the beginning of his career.

Women Smoking

Bernays went on to create the idea of celebrity endorsements and product placements on television and film. He invented the idea of cars being a symbol of male sexuality and convinced the big manufacturers to adopt it, with great success. As consumerism flourished in America, the stock market boomed and politicians such as President Hoover embraced and encouraged the strength and power that it had created. He was quoted, as saying to a group of advertising and public relations men “You have taken over the job of creating desire and have transformed people into constantly moving happiness machines. Machines which have become the key to economic progress".

Male Sexuality and Celebrity Endorsement

The stock market crash severely dented the idea of consumerism but WW2 jump started American industry again and consumerism went on to flourish and grow into the powerful driving force behind our economy today.

Edward Bernays did not just completely transform the way products are marketed to consumers, he turned people into consumers in the first place. Although some of his methods and approaches were morally questionable, his genius and exceptional method of creating campaigns that changed the world cannot be denied.