Drilled S3Ep6: Manipulating the Masses and Predicting the Future—Edward Bernays and W. Howard Chase

Hosted and reported by climate journalist Amy Westervelt, DrilledNews.

Featuring: clips of PR and propaganda pioneers Ed Bernays and Howard Chase; Ed’s daughter Anne Bernays; and political activist Ralph Nader.

Amy Westervelt: There are two key public relations figures that I’ve gone back and forth on including in this season. They didn’t spend a ton of time working directly for oil companies, but they did work for the industry somewhat and they certainly influenced all of our other Mad Men. So I want to touch on that influence and their stories today. I’m Amy Westervelt and this is Drilled. Season 3, The Mad Men of Climate Denial.

The first person I want to talk about today is Edward Bernays. We mentioned him briefly in our Ivy Lee episodes at the start of the season. Bernays and Lee worked together during World War 1 when Lee was handling publicity for the American Red Cross, and Bernays was the film guy on the U.S. war propaganda team. The two became fast friends and Lee generally considered Bernays his only real equal in the publicity realm. Shortly before he died, Lee and Bernays went to lunch and Lee expressed his concern that public-relations would die with the two of them, that it would just be a flash in the pan, a brief trend. Bernays was not about to let that happen. Like Lee, Edward Bernays was an expert in behavioral psychology, but he’d come about that knowledge in an unusual way.

Edward Bernays: Well, my mother was the younger sister, and my father was the brother of his wife.

Amy Westervelt: That’s right. He was Sigmund Freud’s double nephew. What are the odds?

Edward Bernays: The dinner table at night became a discussion forum at which the two parents would discuss what was on their mind. And children were seen and not heard, but actually chosen to listen. I heard about my uncle’s theory of dream interpretation. I heard about psychology as being an important part in evaluating human behavior. I heard of repression and regression and suppression and projection and and taboos and edible complexes. And while I never had a course in Freudian psychology, I did help to translate the first book that Freud had published in England.

Amy Westervelt: The other big influencer we’re going to look at today is Howard Chase. Chase came onto the scene a few decades after Bernays and in a lot of ways was his intellectual progeny. He expanded on Bernays’s ideas about shaping public opinion, encouraging companies to predict which issues they might have with the public and then head them off early. By shifting public perceptions, Chase is responsible for one of the most famous bits of greenwashing ever created. But we’ll get to that in a bit. First, we have to go back to World War One.

Edward Bernays: Around 1926, and I was in Paris for the entire time at the peace conference. It was held in a suburb of Paris. And we were there to make the world safe for democracy. That was the big slogan.

Amy Westervelt: That’s Bernays many decades later, during an interview with the BBC for the documentary The Century of the Self. That trip to Paris that he took with President Woodrow Wilson was really eye opening for Bernays. He realized that he and the rest of the U.S. propaganda team had effectively turned Wilson from a sort of cold elitist into a populist hero and had completely convinced everyone that their sole goal in the war was spreading democracy around the world. In other words, the propaganda worked. But Bernays’s first challenge in getting his ideas accepted would be a rebranding of propaganda itself.

Edward Bernays: When I came back to the United States, I decided that if you could use propaganda for war, you could certainly use it for peace. And propaganda had a sort of bad connotation because of the Germans. So what I did was to try to find some other word, and we came up with counsel on public relations.

Amy Westervelt: Counsel on publilc relations. That’s what Bernays called what he and others were doing. He borrowed the label from the legal realm, which at the time referred to lawyers as counsel on legal affairs. Now, by this point, Ivy Lee had long since established his firm, but it was Bernays who branded the whole industry and pushed to professionalize it. That’s why you’ll sometimes hear him referred to as the father of modern PR. Bernays had specialized in film during the war, and that’s where he concentrated much of his peacetime efforts, too. We have Bernays to thank for product placement, for example, and for the celebrity endorsement.

When President Calvin Coolidge was developing a reputation as a humorless lump, he brought in Bernays and Bernays brought a bunch of celebrities to the White House to have breakfast with Coolidge. And sadly, that’s all it took to make him electable. So, yeah, Bernays is the guy behind politicians getting into the PR game, too. First with Wilson that Coolidge and he worked with Hoover to produce was also the first to create fiqh independent studies to sway consumers and entire fiqh news agencies to lend credibility to his stories. But of course, Bernays’s real genius lay in taking what he had learned growing up around that dinner table and applying it to mass manipulation of the public. When Ivy Lee died, Bernays inherited a lot of his clients, including the Rockefellers and Standard Oil and the American Tobacco Company. Lee had helped the company establish Lucky Strikes in Europe, vastly expanding their customer base, but now they were looking to grow it further. Here’s Bernays talking about how he did that for them and sounding very pleased with himself.

Edward Bernays: One day, Mr. George Hill, president of the American Tobacco Company, called me in and said, we’re losing half of our market. And I said, Why, Mr. Hill? He said, there’s a taboo by men that does not permit women to smoke. What can we do about breaking down that taboo? I said, have I your permission to see a psychoanalyst? He said, What’ll it cost? I went to Dr. Brill and asked him what cigarets meant to women. And he answered very quickly. Cigarets are torches of freedom to women. They wanted to smoke to dramatize man’s tabu against women. And then he added as an afterthought. And they titillate the erogenous zones of the lips. What could I do with that information? Freedom of this spirit … Easter Sunday, and it occurred to me that any young debutante who was aware of the times and of herself as a woman being discriminated against would be delighted to walk in the Easter parade with her bow. To dramatize the idea that cigarets were indeed torches of freedom and to invalidate the taboo against women smoking. So I called up a debutatnte friend of mine, asked her to get another friend and two young men whom they liked, and they… I also instructed them on how to give information about what they did to the newsreels, weekly newsreels, to the newspapers, to the three important press associations, and to walk from thirty fourth street to seventh and back and back and forth, lighting torches of freedom to protest man’s inhumanity to women. Next morning, there wasn’t a newspaper in the United States—even The New York Times had a front page story “debutants light torches of freedom.” The interesting thing to me was that within three days, the newspapers, without any intercession on my part, published accounts that women were smoking in Union Square in San Francisco, in Union Square in Denver and on the Boston Commons. And to my surprise, within six weeks on their own without any intercession on my part. The League of Theaters, which had a ban on women smoking in their smoking rooms under the orchestras of every good theater in New York, lifted the ban and women were allowed to smoke.

Amy Westervelt: There’s a video that goes along with this interview and in it, Bernays is just completely smug and smirking at the end. This stunt had all of his signature moves in it, a fake event to create news. He was really big on this. The idea that company should be creating news to feed to the media, not just letting the media cover whatever was actually happening. Then there was the co-opting of a movement that was already underway.

Women and especially suffragettes, were annoyed at the power that men had over their lives. Bearnaise just had to find a way to plug his client’s products into that. And finally, the psychological component, the tying of cigarets not only to freedom, but also to various Freudian ideas about buried desires. Bernays offered a slightly tame version in the interview we just heard. But in various other interviews and essays that he wrote, he delved into that other classic Freudian idea that ultimately women are just endlessly frustrated by their lack of penises. Cigarets had already become a sort of phallic symbol associated with masculinity. Albany’s had to do was encourage women to harness that energy for themselves. And as you just heard there, it totally worked. Not only did the American tobacco companies sell more cigarets, but women truly embraced the idea of smoking as somehow liberating. Which is kind of sad when you think about the fact that it was just an idea cooked up by a guy trying to sell cigarets related. Bernie is can also be credited with sexualizing the car and attaching it to masculinity.

Car commercial: It seems so much longer than last year! It is. Nearly four inches longer in some models. Ohhhh.

Amy Westervelt: By the 1940s, Bernays was influencing how every industry dealt with and saw the public. In 1946, Earl Newsome, the internal PR guy at Standard Oil who had worked with Bernie’s There, and also General Motors, explained to other exacts what they needed to be doing. The clear, noteworthy image thrown upon the screen must be one of portraying our company as wanting the things that people want. He said there must be a merging of image and audience. If people are to say, that’s my kind of company, the image cannot be one of human exploitation, of ruthlessness, of greed, of selfishness. It must be a human image. It must reveal a company as an organization of human beings. For you see, we are asking people to join our crowd. They who want so much to join a crowd. It’s so condescending toward the public, but also it worked. I found an old episode of Bill Moyers Show where he covers Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays. And of course, right up top there was this.

Chevron ad: In keeping with Chevron’s tradition of service throughout the 20th century, the people of Chevron bring you this program in support of public television.

Amy Westervelt: It’s almost exactly what Newsom was talking about in his presentation. The people of Chevron bring you this show as part of our commitment to public service. At the end of this interview, Moyers asked Bernays about power.

Bill Moyers: You know, you’ve got men like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. Herbert Hoover and the masters of America do what you want them to do. Well, I mean, that’s not influence, that’s power.

Edward Bernays: Well, but I never thought of it as power, I never treated it as power. People want to go where they want to be led.

Amy Westervelt: The thing is, as you’ve probably gathered from the various examples listed here, Bernays basically looked down on the unwashed masses and he was pretty obsessed with power. He loved being able to get the public to do his bidding. And he loved the individual power and wealth that that brought him. Here’s one of his early colleagues, Patrick Jackson, in the Century of the Self documentary.

Patrick Jackson: He was uniquely knowledgeable about how people in large numbers are going to react to products and ideas. But in turn, in political terms, if he were to go out so I can’t imagine that he’d get three people standing and listen. I wasn’t particularly articulate, was a kind of funny looking and didn’t have any sense of reaching out for people one on one, none at all. He didn’t talk about didn’t think about people in groups of one. He thought about people in groups of a thousand.

Amy Westervelt: And here’s Bernays’s daughter Anne.

Anne Bernays: He knows everybody knows the mayor and he knows the senator. And he calls politicians on the telephone as if he did get literally a high or a bang out of doing what he did. And that’s fine. But it can be a little hard on the people around you, especially when you make other people feel stupid. People who worked for him were stupid. Children was stupid. And if people did things in a way that he didn’t, that he wouldn’t have done them. They were stupid. That was it. It was a word that he used over and over and over. Dope and stupid.

Interviewer: And the masses?

Anne Bernays: They were stupid.

Amy Westervelt: Like most of the white male public intellectuals of his day, Bernays believed that democracy could only really work if you could control the masses. That what you really needed was a small group of elites still calling the shots and a way to get the public to go along with that without realizing it wasn’t totally There, idea. Bernays was also in idealogue. He firmly believed that capitalism and patriotism were inherently intertwined and needed to stay that way.

Franklin Roosevelt New Deal Announcement: I commit myself to a New Deal for the American people!

Amy Westervelt: When Franklin Roosevelt pushed forward the New Deal, effectively ending the Depression, Bernays and most of America’s corporate executives freaked out. The masses were not behaving the way they were supposed to. And the task of getting them in line was put to Bernays. He was tapped to lead the vision of the World’s Fair in New York in 1939. And what he built was a capitalist utopia constructed by none other than his client, General Motors. Here’s Anne Bernays again.

Anne Bernays: To my father, the world’s fair was an opportunity to keep the status quo. That is capitalism in a democracy. Democracy and capitalism. That marriage. He did that by manipulating people and getting them to think that you couldn’t have real democracy in anything but a capitalist society. Which was capable of doing anything of creating these wonderful highways, of of making, you know, moving pictures inside everybody’s house. Have telephones that didn’t need cords, of sleek roadsters. I mean, it was consumerist. But at the same time, you inferred that in a funny way, democracy and capitalism went together.

Amy Westervelt: This idea that capitalism and democracy are inextricably linked is still a cornerstone of fossil fuel propaganda today. Coming up, we’ll hear about another influencer who took both the concept of American individuality and the notion that controlling a company’s fate meant controlling the masses to a whole new level.

Like Ivy Lee before him and Herb Schmertz after him, Edward Bernays was kind of flashy. He was the type of guy that wore an ascot a lot and he was often in the news himself. He liked the attention and he was proud of his accomplishments. But there are two types of PR guys, the ones who like to be part of the story themselves and the ones who think they can be most effective. Behind the scenes, William Howard Chase was definitely the latter, although he wrote books and taught classes. Chase was almost never in the media himself. And really for the first couple decades of his career, he wasn’t necessarily a stand out. He was successful. He’d been a partner at some big firms, ran PR for advertising giant McCann Erickson, and then started his own firm. But he didn’t really seem like a visionary. Didn’t seem like the kind of guy that was going to really change public relations in the future. Then came the social movements of the 60s and 70s. And like a lot of other PR guys, Chase got fired up first.

First you had Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, and then this guy became a major thorn in the side of American business.

Ralph Nader: Business is not so much opposed to Marxism or communism as they are to good old free enterprise, competitive business and consumer sovereignty. That’s what really gets them all worried. One can imagine what would happen if people could see what goes into their processed food products. Or they could see what frauds so many of the so-called cleaners and cleaning agents are and the kind of harm that’s involved. Or they could see the enormous price fixing that goes on in the petroleum industry.

Amy Westervelt: That’s Ralph Nader. In 1970, five years after his book, Unsafe at Any Speed, had kicked off a nationwide push for seatbelt laws and made him a constant target of General Motors. Around the time of this speech, the country had also just experienced its largest oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara. Nader was pissed about it.

Ralph Nader: You can destroy a beautiful spot on the West Coast called the Santa Barbara offshore area. And there hasn’t been any criminal prosecution or fine of the violators. There was recently a million dollar fine imposed on Chevron for the biggest oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. What is that? That’s nothing. That’s about an hour’s gross revenue of the parent company.

Amy Westervelt: The modern environmental movement was growing increasingly loud and the idea of consumer rights, consumer protection was really gaining traction. That was the problem Howard Chase set out to solve. What had happened, of course, was that activists had figured out the old Bernays strategy and were deploying it themselves on behalf of the public good. That was never really supposed to happen. In his book Issue Management, Chase complained about, quote, coordinated, anti-establishment issue protagonists, Ralph Nader types who deployed emotional power to turn the passive middle into activist foes. What companies had to do to fight back against these forces, according to Chase, was to predict which issues might face them in the future and then control social, cultural and policy conditions to ensure that these issues would not become a problem. In 1969, Chase gave what would become a famous speech to the PR Society of America. In it, he said companies needed, quote, managers of the mind, and that’s where PR came in. Instead of trying to sell the public on the idea that a corporation’s values were aligned with their own. Chase argued that PR professionals should be shifting those values to align with corporate interests and that they could do that by shaping culture and public policy. Two years after giving this speech, Chase created the ad that convinced America that packaging waste was the fault of individual consumers and not industry.

Littering Ad: Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country. And some people don’t. People start pollution, people can stop it.

Amy Westervelt: In case you haven’t seen it, this ad depicts a Native American man in a canoe being dismayed at all the litter that’s around him in a river and then on the land and ends with some person in a car throwing trash that lands at his feet and then a close up on his face with a single tear coming down it. It’s known as the “crying Indian ad,” although it starred an Italian-American actor portraying a Native American man. In the decades since it was released, this ad has become one of the most cited examples of greenwashing and corporate propaganda. It was put out as a public service announcement, which you would think is just funded by non-profits who care about the environment. But in actual fact, it was paid for by packaging companies. The ad did get a few critics, but it mostly achieved what Chase set out to do. It reframed the idea of pollution in consumers minds from a systemic problem caused by mass production and a lack of regulation to an individual one. Litterbugs.

Chase began pushing for companies to hire not just PR directors, but also issue management specialists. He started newsletters and eventually even started a trade group for this new profession called the Issue Management Association. His ideas took hold fairly quickly and within a few years most companies were hiring issue management directors. By the mid 80s, the ground had shifted again from activists using the propaganda techniques of corporations to fight for the public good to companies, redefining what the public good was, and positioning themselves as the activists fighting for it.

Next time, we’ll meet another secret force engineering, the public interest. John Hill. Like a lot of our Mad Men, Hill started out as a journalist before making his way into PR and he worked for, you guessed it, both tobacco and oil.

Drilled is part of the Critical Frequency Podcast Network. The show is reported, written and produced by me. Amy Westervelt. Julia Ritchey is our editor. Our managing producer is Katie Ross. She also created this season’s incredible artwork Sound Design, Scoring and Mixing by Bhi Bhiman. Rekha Murthy is our editorial advisor. Naomi LaChance is our fact-checker. Special thanks to our First Amendment attorney, James Wheaten and the First Amendment project. Drilled is made possible in part by a generous grant from the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development. We appreciate their support. You can find Drilled on Apple podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. Don’t forget to leave us a rating or review, it really helps the show. And you can follow us on Twitter now at We Are Drilled and visit our new Web site, Drillednews.com for climate accountability reporting, newsletters, and behind-the-scenes stories from this season. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next time.