The Origins of Modern Marketing: Propaganda, Shilling Smokes, and Sigmund Freud

John Cousins
February 7, 2023
5 min read

Freud and Jung traveled together to America for the first time on the same ship. Sailing into New York Harbor, Sigmund Freud stood on the deck with Carl Jung and gazed out at the statue of liberty and the skyline.

Their arrival was very much anticipated by the American intelligentsia and those interested in the nascent field of psychology. The revolutionary theories of the psyche from Europe had many implications. Freud turned to Jung and said, “They don’t realize we’re bringing them the plague.”

“Just Do It” “Think Different”

“The most interesting man in the world.” “Reach out and touch someone.” “Finger-lickin’ good.” Like it or not, advertising is part of American cultural literacy.

A big part of the Super Bowl viewing extravaganza each year is the commercials. Oh yeah, and they also play football in between the ads. And there’s a music act in the middle surrounded by ads.

Do those ads really work? History, and behavioral economics, point to yes.

Advertising isn’t just an American phenomenon. Audi’s famous slogan — “Vorsprung durch Technik” “advancement through technology” shows even more sober cultures rely on advertising slogans to convey their mission and inspire customers.

Modern advertising and public relations took off in the U.S. after World War I. It began in the late 1800s with the concept of AIDA and John Wanamaker’s famous critique.

While many people may think Don Draper is the genius behind the influential power of American advertising, the real-life crafter of material desire is someone you most likely have never heard of: Edward Bernays. He was the original salesman of manufactured needs.

Bernays developed the concept of modern public relations in the 1920s. He codified his ideas in his 1928 book, Propaganda. His thesis was that public relations is a powerful mind control technique:

“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, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of…. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.”

Freud’s nephew

Edward Bernays was born in Austria in 1891 and was Sigmund Freud’s nephew via both of his parents. His mother, Anna, was Freud’s sister. And his father, Ely, was Freud’s wife’s brother.

When Edward was just one year old his family moved to New York. He went to Cornell and studied agriculture but ended up working as a journalist. He worked for the Woodrow Wilson Administration during World War I and helped influence the US engagement by promoting the idea that U.S. efforts and sacrifices were bringing democracy to Europe.

Bernays experienced first hand how effective propaganda could be during war. After the war he began to figure out how those techniques might prove equally effective during peacetime in commercial activities. By this time the word propaganda had begun to acquire a pejorative connotation so Bernays promoted the term “public relations.” A rose by any other name…

He developed the psychological insights of his Uncle Sigmund about the subconscious mind, into a set of principles he called “the engineering of consent.” He developed techniques to “control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it.” To work effectively, the messaging had to appeal, not to the rational mind, but the subconscious.

This is what marketers now refer to as emotional engagement. It is the key to content marketing where a strong emotional connection to the message is considered the catalyst to purchasing action. Buyer beware.

Bernays flourished promoting this strategy and worked with clients such as General Electric, Procter & Gamble, and the American Tobacco Company.

Bernays’ campaigns were legendary. To encourage cigarette smoking among women, he promoted a campaign of fashionable young women flaunting their “torches of freedom” as a way to signal their newly found liberated status.

In the 1930s, he helped promote cigarettes as a diet aid to keep slim and slender. Lots of folks still begin their lifelong habit with this beneficial idea in mind.

His ideas were modern and put into practice were extraordinarily effective. The Third Reich embraced his writings on propaganda and public relations.

Joseph Goebbels was an ardent admirer of Bernays’ ideas and writings. Goebbels was the minister of propaganda for the Third Reich. Exploiting Bernays’ concepts to extreme ends drove his agenda.

Bernays was Jewish. He became aware that the Nazis were using his ideas in 1933:

“They were using my books as the basis for a destructive campaign against the Jews of Germany. This shocked me, but I knew any human activity can be used for social purposes or misused for antisocial ones.”

His ideas and practice form and insightful and powerful means for shaping public opinion. His ideas are neutral and can be used for purposes beneficial or not. His ideas a extremely relevant today as we wrestle with their role in social media campaigns.

His underlying purpose, and that of his clients, was to make money. The goal was to create and influence Demand by convincing people that they want something they do not need,

Bernays helped to create our consumer culture. We now live in a world where manufactured desires attempt to corral our purchasing power in the pursuit of a mirage of happiness. We’ve come a long way baby?

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John Cousins
Author, Entrepreneur, & Teacher

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