Creating Circumstances: Edward Bernays, Psychoanalysis, and the Making of American Consumer Culture

By Joseph Malherek

In 1929, it was socially acceptable for women to smoke at home and in certain public spaces, such as a hotel lobby. Smoking on the streets, however, was another matter altogether. George Washington Hill, the president of the American Tobacco Company, sought to quash this old taboo. He enlisted a public relations consultant, Edward Bernays, who had, in his years as a press agent, perfected the art of “creating circumstances” that would attract favorable coverage—and thus free publicity—in newspapers. For this job, Bernays consulted a psychoanalyst who suggested that smoking cigarettes was a sublimation of oral eroticism—to do it openly would be a dramatic symbol of women’s emancipation. The cigarettes would become, the psychoanalyst said, “torches of freedom.” This led Bernays to stage a parade on Easter Sunday of 10 young debutantes who would, in the interest of the “equality of the sexes,” light their cigarettes and march down New York’s Fifth Avenue—with male escorts—to proclaim their liberation and equality. Bernays exploited his connections with the press to ensure that the parade would be widely photographed and covered in newspapers. In the end, the march caused a national stir, and Bernays had effectively used the press to transform the progressive impulse of feminism into a boost in cigarette sales for his client. 

Edward Bernays on the cover of Tide, an advertising and marketing trade journal, October 15, 1936. (Box 503, Edward L. Bernays Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress)

Bernays became the focus of my research at the Library of Congress as the AHA’s 2016–17 J. Franklin Jameson Fellow at the John W. Kluge Center. I planned to conduct research related to my book project, “From Bauhaus to Maxwell House: Émigrés and the Making of American Consumer Culture, 1933–1976.” The book examines cohort of émigrés, mostly German-speaking Jews from central Europe, who came to the United States in the 1930s and created the conditions for the consumer society that fully flourished after the Second World War. They worked in a variety of fields: market research, sociology, psychology, industrial design, polling and surveying, and architecture. The library’s Manuscript Division holds several collections relevant to this project, including the papers of Victor Gruen, a Viennese architect known for inventing the suburban shopping center.

My research in the early weeks of my fellowship focused on émigrés; however, I became increasingly drawn to Bernays, who is known for his work for large American corporations such as General Motors and the United Fruit Company. I had known that the Manuscript Division held his papers, but I initially hesitated because Bernays didn’t quite fit into my story about émigrés: although he was born in Vienna, his family moved to New York when he was an infant. However, I became increasingly fascinated by Bernays, a curious figure about whom I had been asked many times at academic conferences. Contemporary events during my fellowship in fall 2016 also piqued my interest in this master manipulator of the news media. Furthermore, my interest in the application of Continental ideas in America led me to focus on Bernays’s relationship with his famous uncle, Sigmund Freud, whose papers are also at the library. Indeed, almost every contemporary account of Bernays notes the fact that he is Freud’s nephew, suggesting that he inherited his uncle’s brilliance in the field of psychoanalysis.

A proof of an article for publication with the headline, “Cigarettes Go Fifth Avenue” (ca. 1928–31). Bernays’s firm produced the article for his client, the American Tobacco Company, and distributed it to newspapers for free publication. Articles such as these served the interests of American Tobacco; the retailer, Bonwit Teller, which got free publicity; and newspapers, which got free content cleverly disguised as “news.” Such “cross promotion” was a common tactic for Bernays. (Box 84, Edward L. Bernays Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress)

This idea of Bernays as a rather sinister propagandist is fairly entrenched in the popular mind, particularly as a result of a 2002 BBC documentary called The Century of the Self by filmmaker Adam Curtis, which depicted him as a conspirator against the masses. Many scholars are familiar with Bernays through Stuart Ewen’s book PR! A Social History of Spin (1996). Ewen is generally very skeptical of the practice of public relations, which he sees as an antidemocratic, manipulative form of propaganda that seeks to mold the minds of the masses. He points out that Bernays had been deeply influenced by the work of American journalist and political theorist Walter Lippmann, particularly his 1922 book Public Opinion. Lippmann’s theories directly inspired Bernays’s own book, Crystallizing Public Opinion, which appeared the following year. Lippmann was skeptical of the capacity of the masses to govern themselves and participate rationally in democracy, and Ewen suggests that Bernays put Lippmann’s antidemocratic ideas into practice for his major clients in business and government.

My research addressed the following questions: to what extent was Ewen’s interpretation correct, and what was the true nature of Bernays’s relationship with Freud? As it turns out, Bernays was less Freud’s protégé than he was his admiring nephew and literary agent. Bernays wanted to publish an English translation of Freud’s wartime lectures on psychoanalysis for a lay audience in America. Private correspondence reveals that Bernays’s impulses as a publicist were primary; he was not a trained interpreter of Freud’s ideas. Bernays rushed ahead with the publication of Freud’s lectures in 1919 despite his uncle’s extreme displeasure with the English translation. Bernays insisted that the publication would bring Freud “fame and glory and also a substantial recompense.” Much to his uncle’s horror, Bernays also arranged for Freud to write articles in several mass magazines in America—clients of Bernays including Cosmopolitan. Bernays felt that Freud’s ideas could be popularized and was clearly more concerned with publicity for his uncle, and for himself, than he was for the integrity of Freud’s ideas.

While Bernays did draw from Freud’s insights and from other theorists of mass psychology such as Lippmann, he was more of a tactician than a theorist. The events he staged—such as the “torches of freedom” march—were less the manifestations of a Svengali and more the product of a talented and experienced press agent who’d also served as a propagandist for the US Committee on Public Information during World War I. It’s not clear that his knowledge of psychoanalytic theory greatly affected his strategy for public relations. Principally, Bernays understood how to use the media to create news favorable to his clients. He was only a Freudian insofar as he viewed the public as primarily emotional and irrational. In managing the public relations of major consumer-oriented corporations, this basic insight was sufficient for him to create circumstances favorable to his clients.

Joseph Malherek earned a PhD in American studies from George Washington University in 2015. He has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes. He will be the Fulbright-Botstiber Visiting Professor of Austrian-American Studies at the University of Vienna for 2017–18.


The J. Franklin Jameson Fellowship in American History is sponsored jointly by the AHA and the Library of Congress. It is awarded annually to support significant scholarly research in the collections of the Library of Congress by scholars at an early stage in their careers in history. PhD degree or equivalent required. Applicants must have received this degree within the past seven years. The fellowship will not be awarded to complete a doctoral dissertation. The fellowship has a stipend of $5,000 that will be awarded for three months to spend in full-time residence at the Library of Congress. The dates of residency will be at the discretion of the fellowship winner. The application deadline is April 1.

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