November 1, 1998
Appeals of Indirection
Bernays died in 1995 at age 103. His advanced years are notable by themselves, but mostly
because they mean he lived to see his legacy played out again and again by unwitting
They call him the "Father of Spin." In a best-selling book of the same name,
biographer Larry Tye says Bernays’ approach to public relations (PR) was
"considerably more circuitous and infinitely more effective" than those of his
peers in the mid-1920s.
"If the aim was to sell more bacon, [most publicists] would find ways to take a
bite out of the business of other bacon-makers," Tye writes. In contrast, he reports,
Bernays resolved to transform American eating habits. On behalf of Beechnut Packing Co.,
he executed and pitched the results of a physicians’ poll favoring hearty breakfasts.
Coverage in newspapers nationwide solidified the bacon-and-eggs duo a place on the
According to Tye, Bernays employed similar tactics for each of his clients. To boost
sales of books for Simon & Schuster, he persuaded architects, contractors and
decorators to build shelves into their designs. To raise sales of cigarettes for the
American Tobacco Company, he organized in 1929 a parade of women, carrying "torches
of freedom." Once, he even rallied the nation behind an anti-tyranny war in Guatemala
whose primary beneficiary was a banana grower.
Through "appeals of indirection," as he called them, Bernays and a band of
colleagues were skillfully manipulating trends in ways that affected what average
Americans ate for breakfast, what homes they bought and what colors they wore. And they
were doing it so adeptly that most people never realized it was happening.
Fast forward 70 years, and you can see Bernays’ handiwork all around–even in telecom.
Some incarnations could be considered creative–equipping apartment buildings with digital
subscriber lines (DSL) or cable modems to ease and promote use of advanced, premium-priced
services, for example. Others are more distasteful, such as the creation and funding of a
consumer group to lobby regulators against a competitor. Still others are merely suspect
by their absurdity. For instance, who was the master manipulator who convinced us that
being in touch 24/7, via a follow-me number and a phone in our pocket, was a good idea?
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