BIOGRAPHY OF AN IDEA by Edward L. Bernays


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There are the prodigal memoirs of Edward L. Bernays, not the first man to manipulate public consent, but probably the most successful. He made the selling of intangibles a profession and called it ""public relations."" ""Today,"" he says, ""the professional weighs public attitudes and public opinions and advises on actions to achieve understanding and adjustment with the public."" (Anthony did the same thing and they called him a demagogue.) It all begins with Bernays' childhood in New York, goes on to his failure at Cornell, through his first job as press agent for Elsie Ferguson, Enrico Caruso, and the Metropolitan Opera Association. During WWI, with the U.S. Committee on Public Information, he ""learned how words can win a war and how failure to communicate can lose the peace."" He married Doris Fleishman and helped persuade employers to re-employ ex-servicemen. He assisted the United Fruit Company in their fight against Communist infiltration (which is like helping a typhoid carrier collect funds for the Community Chest.) There are recollections throughout of his uncle Sigmund Freud, ""a warm, friendly man with a beard."" During the Depression, he and the Ladies' Home Journal conceived a palliative campaign slogan ""It's Up To the Women."" The program? Buy. Buy. Buy. Other clients on whom Bernays is just full of information: Proctor & Gamble, Beechnut Bacon ""heavy breakfasts are scientifically desirable,"" various book publishers, Eric Hodgins when he headed Fortune magazine, Dixie Cups for Dixie, sports equipment for Spalding, Cleopatra (the earlier misfortune, for Fox). They invited school principles to come and see it (a ""classic way to teach ancient history""). Bernays was sometimes on the side of the angels . But he wasn't always, and it doesn't seem to matter to him. Vaguely discomfiting for those to whom social science in the hands of industry is ""reification."" Any merit the book has is overshadowed by its ridiculous length.

Pub Date: Oct. 29th, 1965
Publisher: Simon & Schuster