October 19, 2021

How to sell – Edward Bernays: how to sell you something you do not need

6 min read
How to sell

How to sell – An email arrived in my box called “exciting article about propaganda, consumer culture and manipulation.” It was from my boss, asking me to conduct an investigation on a certain Edward Bernays for our blog. I did not even open two tabs on this subject before thinking “my boss went crazy. He is asking me to expose the most sinister side of our industry. ”

However, investigating in greater depth, I understood that what Bernays did is almost nothing like what we do every day in the agency. This partly has to do with the differences between traditional marketing and digital marketing, a topic for another article. Already with my conscience appeased, I went on to fascinate and horrify myself in equal parts with the ingenuity of Edward Bernays. I happened to tell you what I found. How to sell

Men we’ve never heard of

Marketing is the son of psychology. Or at least his nephew. Indeed, that was Edward Barnays of Sigmund Freud. Although the name of Bernays does not resonate as much as that of his uncle, the impact it had on society was similarly sharp. Bernays was responsible for taking Freud’s theories about behavior and the human mind to help sell more products. Thus, the way of doing marketing changed forever. How to sell

Before Bernays, marketing was mostly based on showing the practical virtues of a product. He inaugurated the notion that in order to sell anything (from a brand to a public figure), it was best to link it with the deepest desires and fears of people. Bernays wrote “People are rarely aware of the real reasons that motivate their behavior (…) We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes are formed, our ideas suggested: in large part by men we have never heard of.”

Speech of the method

When I told my friends about some of Bernays’ campaigns, they found them implausible. They found it hard to believe that such small seismic movements in the culture could generate such a tsunami of consumption. This is because Bernays understood that there was a link between culture and consumption that could not be wasted. Their ways were indirect and elusive, so that the public received propaganda messages without suspecting it. For example, Bernays was a forerunner of indirect advertising in movies: during his long and famous campaign for Lucky Strike, he got movie stars to smoke movies repeatedly. How to sell

His handling of public opinion was such that he managed to impose it as a discipline. In 1928 he wrote the book Propaganda, where he defined the limits of his specialty. After the war, the term “propaganda” acquired a negative connotation since it was used by the Nazis as a political tool. Bernays then applied the golden rule of public relations, which was portrayed in the series about publicists, Mad Men: “If you do not like what is being said, change the conversation.” Bernays changed the name “propaganda” to “public relations” and the rest is history. What follows is a brief tour of some of this man’s most important campaigns behind the scenes. How to sell

Lucky Strikes Back

During the 1920s, the American Tobacco Corporation sought to reach a larger audience of smokers. George Washigton Hill, its president, was at that time in charge of the Lucky Strike brand. Hill proposed to appeal to a previously unexplored demographic: women. “We are losing half of our market because men have invoked a taboo on women who smoke in public,” he argued.

Smoking the shadow

In 1929, Washigton Hill hired Bernays to convince women to smoke cigarettes. Bernays went to work with his uncle’s theories in mind. Since smoking was considered an appetite suppressant, and thinness was fashionable, Bernays designed a campaign that appealed to the unconscious fear of women to gain weight. In the ads, thin and pretty women were haunted by the shadow of a future obese version. The tagline read: “When you feel tempted, grab a Lucky [instead of a candy]. Avoid the shadow of the future ».

Torches of freedom

The audacious campaign of Bernays went further. To effectively break the smoking taboo in public, Bernays decided to inquire about what cigarettes mean for women. After consulting a local referent of psychoanalysis, he came to the conclusion that cigarettes were a symbol of male power (according to the psychoanalyst he consulted, they literally represented “the phallus”) and that he could then get women to smoke cigarettes if He posed as a way to challenge masculine power. To this end, Bernays organized a demonstration at the Easter parade of 1929, where famous women held their “torches of freedom”: the Lucky Strike cigarettes. For this action, the brand became the symbol of gender equality in the United States during those How to sell

About 1500 green cards

In the thirties a new problem arose that required the advice of Bernays. Washigton Hill noticed that while the women were smoking more cigarettes, for some reason they were not buying Lucky Strikes. An investigation of 1934 yielded a curious answer to this puzzle: the moss green color of the package was “difficult to combine”. Changing the color of the package was not an option since Washington Hill had spent a lot of money on those colors. Bernays then applied his ingenuity and convinced fashion designers to incorporate color into their new seasonal designs. He held a “Green Gala” at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel for some of society’s most prominent trendsetters and sent 1,500 green letterhead letters to interior decorators, buyers of home furnishings and art groups in the industry. The campaign was a success.

Breakfast for champions

We all heard the saying “breakfast is the most important meal of the day”. But not many know that the man behind this “wisdom” is, again, Bernays! It all came about because in the 1920s The Beech-Nut Packing Company was struggling to sell one of its most important meat products: bacon. Instead of simply reducing the price, Bernays raised a deeper question: who tells the public what to eat?

Until then, Americans consumed a light breakfast of coffee, juice and maybe toast. Bernays got 5,000 doctors to sign a statement in which they agreed that a hearty, high-protein breakfast (for example, bacon and eggs) was healthier than a light one. The petition was published in the newspapers and had a huge impact on American society: from then on a breakfast that did not include bacon and eggs was considered “poor”. The bacon sales skyrocketed and Bernays fulfilled its mission: it generated a need that previously did not exist. And, without looking for it, he created the famous American breakfast.

The egg of guilt

World War II saw the rise of instant preparations. As people had less time to cook, the industry began to design formulas of dry ingredients that only require water for its preparation. The instant cake mixes were pioneers in this field. Despite being so convenient, they were not selling. Disappointed and confused by the low sales, executives of the brand Betty Crocker asked Bernays for help.

Again, Bernays turned to psychology to solve this problem. After conducting a focus group aimed at housewives, he came to the conclusion that they felt an unconscious guilt for using a product that required so little effort. The answer: give them a greater sense of participation, by requiring them to add an egg to the mix. Sales spiked when the symbolic egg had its effect on the collective unconscious and eliminated the barrier of guilt.

The legacy of Bernays

More than two decades after his death, the impact of Bernays has as a great legacy the consumer culture: he understood that any object can be transformed into a symbol and that studying the cultural implications of these symbols allowed him to exercise a manipulation of people on a large scale. He called this technique “consent engineering.” Despite its controversial status, it is still used by brands, companies, public figures and politicians from around the world to achieve its commercial or propaganda goals.

Indeed, it is impressive what this man achieved: terrifies and wonder because it reveals very complex aspects of human nature. Aspects that my boss and I felt a little uncomfortable discussing on Skype one Wednesday morning. So we are going to leave the moral judgment at his discretion, which, anyway, was already influenced by Bernays going around.

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