For the 51st episode of the Journalism History podcast, Shelley Spector describes interviewing opinion-making pioneer Edward Bernays about his landmark campaigns to sell bacon as a breakfast food and cigarettes as “torches of freedom” for women.
Shelley Spector is co-founder and president of The Museum of Public Relations, the world’s only museum devoted to that specific field of communications.
This episode is sponsored by the Museum of Public Relations.
Edward Bernays: (00:00) Many people believe public relations is press agentry, flackery, publicity. Public relations is not that. It is a two-way street, advising the client on attitudes and actions to win over the public.
Nick Hirshon: (00:08) Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told. I’m your host, Nick Hirshon, guiding you through our own drafts of history.
Transcripts for the show can be found online at journalism-history.org/podcast.
This episode is sponsored by the Museum of Public Relations, based in New York City. As the only museum for the PR and communications fields, the museum has become one of the world’s foremost educational resources for PR students and for scholars who not only want to learn the history of the field, but how the field itself has impacted history.
Edward Bernays is often described as the father of public relations. Born in Austria in 1891, Bernays embarked on a historic career as a vigorous spokesman and advocate for public relations. Bernays was the nephew of the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, and he drew on the social sciences to motivate and shape the response of an audience.
Nick Hirshon: (01:18) His influential books included Crystallizing Public Opinion in 1923, Propaganda in 1928, and Public Relations in 1952.
In this episode, we review the career of Bernays with Shelley Spector, the founder of the Museum of Public Relations. And as a special treat, we will hear clips from Spector’s oral history interviews with Bernays, as he described some of his landmark campaigns that had long-lasting effects on American culture.
Shelley, welcome to the Journalism History podcast.
Shelley Spector: Thank you so much for having me, Nick.
Nick Hirshon: Of course. We’re happy to have you here. We’re here to talk today about someone I know you know very, very well: Edward Bernays, the father of public relations. I want to go back to when you first met him. I think this is kind of an interesting story. You were working in public relations in 1985 when you met him at a conference and he was already 94 years old then. Can you describe your first meeting with him and how that sparked your idea to create this Museum of Public Relations?
Shelley Spector: (02:40) Okay, sure. Meeting Eddie was probably the most serendipitous event of my professional life. He was giving a seminar and I had been scheduled to give a seminar as well in the same hotel. So I walked past him and waited for him to finish the class. And then he – I introduced myself. He asked me to go to dinner at the Waldorf. I invited my then-boyfriend and now-husband to go with me. And he was telling these amazing stories about working with Thomas Edison, Calvin Coolidge, Eleanor Roosevelt.
And my then-boyfriend said, “This guy seems a little crazy.” And I said, “No, this is actually who he is. And I don’t think there’s ever been an oral history done of him.” So Barry convinced me to ask him if we can come up to his house in a couple of months with video-recording equipment and we started doing oral histories of him and, you know, because we never knew – he was of an advanced age 94 – we never knew when it was going to be the last time we would see him.
Shelley Spector: (03:50) But it turns out that we knew him for the next ten years of his life. And every time we would go up, we’d hear more and more very interesting stories. And you know, there was nothing like that relationship because he embodied the 20th century. He knew everybody of note in the 20th century. And we have probably a hundred hours of videotape recordings of Bernays and there’s a bunch of them that I use in class called “Eddie’s Greatest Hits.” There are little snippets and they, I think they were a great way for our kids learning public relations to understand how it was originally developed as a profession.
Nick Hirshon: (4:39) And so were you already thinking about creating a Museum of Public Relations at that time, or there was something about his collection that made you think there was a need for this?
Shelley Spector: (04:51) Actually, Nick, it was his idea. As much as I’d like to claim credit for the idea, it was Bernays’s idea. One day at his 101st birthday party, he turned to Barry and me, we have this on video. And he said, “You know, one day I’d like to have a Museum of Public Relations. I’d like to have it in New York City.” And then he looked at us and he said, “Would you guys, would you two create a Museum of Public Relations in New York City?” And what do you do when somebody asks you a question like that? We both said yes. And so when he did die, when he was 103 and a half on, in March of 1995, we – a couple of weeks later we walked around his house with a librarian from the Library of Congress who had already gotten 900 boxes, and whatever the librarian didn’t want for the Library of Congress, we took for ourselves and loaded up the truck and drove back. And then we started displaying the materials. And so that was 25 years ago. And since then we’ve become a 501c3 nonprofit. We got chartered as an educational institution by the Board of Regents of New York State, and we now are, you know, a bona fide museum. We are the only museum of public relations in the world and, and I’m pretty proud of that.
Nick Hirshon: (06:18) Certainly. Congratulations on all of your hard work. I’m sure it’s been a crazy journey over these last three decades and we appreciate all of the work you’ve done to preserve the history of public relations. One of the ways that you’ve done that: You mentioned doing these interviews with Bernays starting, I guess, in 1986 or ’87. And you’ve provided us with some of these soundbites. Just fascinating to hear Bernays, again, the father of public relations in his own words talking about this. So we’re going to play some of these clips here. He’s about 95 or 96 years old, I guess depending on the month that you were doing this. And first, we’re going to listen to him talking about the definition of public relations and then we’ll talk about it on the other end.
Shelley Spector: (07:01) Okay.
Edward Bernays: (07:02) Many people believe public relations is press agentry, flackery, publicity. Public relations is not that. It is a two-way street, advising the client on attitudes and actions to win over the public on whom viability of the unit depends. And then, educating, informing, and persuading the public to accept these social goods, ideas, concepts, or whatever.
Nick Hirshon: (07:43) So we just heard Bernays give his definition of public relations, saying it’s not press agency or publicity. It’s really more of a two-way street. How important do you think, Shelley, that definition was to the history of public relations? How did it maybe change the way people viewed public relations?
Shelley Spector: (08:01) Well, he, this was the first definition of public relations. He created the profession of public relations. He added sophistication to it. He talked about the two-way street, and of course he was, as the double nephew of Sigmund Freud, he can gave the public relations field a kind of psychological bent. He called it an applied social science. So back then, with the exception of Ivy Lee, you had lots of publicists, press agents with what we would call flacks today. But public relations as, as Bernays knew it was an applied social science that studied public opinion and also studied methods for changing public opinion that would lead to a change in behavior. So it’s a very sophisticated way of looking at how we, how we communicate and why we communicate. And I play this particular tape in every lecture that I give because it’s so important to have this foundation, especially today when so much of what students and professionals do in PR is think of it as just social media, and it’s just not that.
Nick Hirshon: (09:17) Well, as we look through Bernays’s career and some of his major campaigns that you’ve also interviewed him about, in the 1920s he was then hired by the Beech-Nut Packing Company for what became one of his most famous campaigns. Let’s hear him describe it in his own words and then again we’ll reflect on what he was trying to achieve through this campaign.
Edward Bernays: (09:40) Many years ago, our client was the Beech-Nut Packing Company. One of their basic problems was bacon. We made a research and found out that the American public ate very light breakfasts of coffee, maybe a roll, and orange juice. We thereupon decided that the only way to meet the situation was as follows. We went to our physician, found that a heavy breakfast was sounder from the standpoint of health than a light breakfast, because the body loses energy during the night and needs it during the day. We asked the physician, after telling him why we were talking to him, would he be willing at no cost to write to 5,000 physicians and ask them whether their judgment was the same as his, confirmed his judgment. He said he would be glad to do it.
We carried out a letter to 5,000 physicians, obviously all of them – we got about 4,500 answers – all of them concurred that a heavy breakfast was better for the health of the American people than a light breakfast. That was publicized in the newspapers. Newspapers throughout the country had headlines saying, “4,500 Physicians Urge Heavy Breakfast in Order to Improve Health of American People.” Many of them stated that bacon and eggs should be embodied with the breakfast. And as a result, the sale of bacon went up. And I still have a letter from Bartlett Arkell, president of Beech-Nut Packing Company, telling me so.
Nick Hirshon: (12:01) So we’ve just heard Bernays discuss how bacon had not really been part of the American breakfast for a while after the Industrial Revolution. He’s called upon to help make it so again and Shelley, in 2015 Americans bought over $4 billion worth of bacon. So it’s clearly become part of the diet again and when they find bacon on the breakfast table, I don’t know if they realize that they have Bernays to thank, I suppose. So what is important about this Beech-Nut Packing Company campaign?
Shelley Spector: (12:34) Okay, well, there’s a few things to notice from this campaign. One is that in all the promotion for this, he never used Beech-Nut Packing Company in his communications. And this was the first time that you had a third-party endorsement from an authority and that was this group of doctors, I guess 4,000 doctors.
And imagine what it took in the 1920s. You didn’t have, you know, Survey Monkey or Mail Chimp to go out and do a survey for you. You had to individually go and send letters out asking doctors what they thought about, about a breakfast of, filled with bacon and eggs. So when he got the results back, he created the story that bacon has, you know, whether it was Beech-Nut or any bacon company, it didn’t matter because Beech-Nut was the largest, had the largest market share of bacon. So all sales went up for bacon and Beech-Nut, you know, profited mightily from that. But what he did essentially was turn bacon into a health food.
Nick Hirshon: (13:48) So obviously when our listeners are hearing you say, “Bacon is now a health food,” they might be like, “Really? That’s not the way that bacon is certainly described today.” So what do you feel, or how do you think Bernays kind of looked at his role here? In a way, is he misleading the public into thinking that something is more healthy than it really is? Or did he not feel that way? Did he think that since he had consulted these doctors that maybe it really did have some sort of way of giving you energy throughout the day?
Shelley Spector: (14:16) Yeah, it was a matter of you’re breaking your fast. You haven’t eaten in ten hours, say. Right? And most people in, when they came to the industrialized parts of the country, you know, especially the urban areas, Boston and New York, they had a different, very different life than Americans did when they lived on a farm and they’d get up and they’d have a big breakfast. People in the cities, as we know today, hardly have time for breakfast.
Essentially, he was just promoting eating a healthy breakfast full of protein. It happened to include bacon in it. And back then nobody knew about cholesterol or fat or anything like that. But he got people to eat a good breakfast and he changed the buying habits of mothers who would go out and now buy bacon and eggs, including, you know, for their families to eat. And it became also a kind of a peer pressure from one mother to another. You know, if a kid got an A in a test, one of the other mothers would say, “Hey, are you giving your kids bacon and eggs?” And so now with a whole of word of mouth going on, you can imagine bacon sales going up quite a lot.
Nick Hirshon: (15:29) Sure. And using his techniques of psychoanalysts because you said he’s the nephew of Sigmund Freud. Maybe understanding what people are looking for and if they feel this is giving them boost and might help their education as you mentioned or some other aspect of just their getting through the day. Yeah, it’s a unique way of looking at public relations. So then in 1929 he has this other famous campaign, Torches of Freedom, that’s to promote female smoking. So again, we’re going to hear this as a bit of a longer clip, about six minutes here. We’re going to hear Bernays talking about how he first got involved in Torches of Freedom. And then we’ll discuss this on the other side.
Edward Bernays: (16:08) One day, Mr. George Hill, president of the American Tobacco Company, one of the largest, maybe the largest tobacco company extant at that time, called me in and said, “We’re losing half of our market.” And I said, “Why, Mr. Hill?” He said, “There’s a taboo of men – there’s a taboo by men that does not permit women to smoke either in public or even at home. What can we do about breaking down that taboo?” I said, “Have I your permission to see a psychoanalyst?” He said, “What’d it cost?” I said, “Let me ask.” So I called up Dr. Brill, who was one of the great disciples of my uncle, Sigmund Freud, and said, “What will it cost, Dr. Brill, for me to have a little conference with you on a question that is of importance to the people whom I’m working with?” And he said, “$125,” which at today’s purchasing power would be about twenty times that, twenty times that.
Edward Bernays: (17:28) So I went to Dr. Brill and I asked him what cigarettes meant to women, and let me say in parenthesis that cigarettes at that time were not regarded as dangerous to your health, because that had not been found out yet. In fact, they were regarded as symbols of men, or little boys smoked them to prove that they were older than they were. And they regarded as symbols of importance in the society, giving pleasure and so on. So, I went to Dr. Brill and asked him what cigarettes meant to women. And he answered very quickly, “Cigarettes are torches of freedom to women. They want to smoke to dramatize man’s taboo against women by not permitting them to smoke. And that’s why they want to smoke.” And then he added as an afterthought, “And they titillate the erogenous zones of the lips.” Here I had my $125 worth of knowledge.
Edward Bernays: (18:58) What could I do with that information? I decided that there were two days of freedom in the United States. One was July Fourth, political freedom, but that was no good because people were in the country using firecrackers to celebrate the day they were permitted at that time. This was some fifty years ago.
The other day was freedom of the 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 cigarettes were indeed torches of freedom to, and to validate – and to invalidate the taboo against women smoking. So I called up a debutante friend of mine, asked her to get another friend and two young men whom they liked. There were no boyfriends at that time, I might add.
Edward Bernays: (20:24) 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, the AP, United Press, and International News Service, and to walk from 34th Street to 57th and back, and back and forth, lighting torches of freedom to protest man’s inhumanity to women by a taboo against smoking. Next morning, there wasn’t a newspaper in the United States – even the New York Times had a front-page story: “Debutantes light torches of freedom to protest man’s inhumanity to women by a taboo against smoking, lighting cigarettes in their walk.”
The interesting thing to me was that within three days, the newspapers, without any intersession 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 the smoking rooms under the orchestras of every good theater in New York, lifted the ban and women were allowed to smoke. That obviously set a trend and the surgeon general’s statement that cigarettes were dangerous to your health did not come out until about thirty years later.
Nick Hirshon: (22:36) So at the time, obviously smoking was not known as being dangerous to your health, as it is today. Probably just like you were saying, if maybe the concerns about cholesterol and bacon, but he’s really called in to kind of break this taboo. Women are not supposed to smoke, so make it almost a kind of pre-feminist kind of icon movement of, well, because men don’t want us to smoke, that’s one of the reasons why we do it. So when you were talking to Bernays about Torches of Freedom, I get the sense he’s very proud of course of all of these campaigns and rightfully so, it was very successful. What was your kind of interaction with him about this? How do you think he viewed this many years later?
Shelley Spector: (23:13) Well, to him, this was a feminism campaign. This was part of the suffrage era. Remember, women only won the right to vote nine years before this campaign was enacted. And he says that he wasn’t trying to get more women to smoke. He was trying to get women who were already smoking to smoke in public places where they weren’t allowed. So I guess it would mean that women who are already smokers would be smoking more, which isn’t a great thing. But he of course didn’t know that back then. And, and, and by the way, his wife was a very, very heavy smoker and she did die as a result of that. But you know, when Eddie was, I think, in the 1970s and 1980s, Eddie would go around to big PR organizations and conferences and try to get the agencies not to handle tobacco accounts.
Shelley Spector: (24:12) And I think he felt very badly about this his whole life. And when the Surgeon General, 1964, you know, enacted the labeling law for cigarettes, they, he called Bernays and said, “Is there anything you think you could do?” And there was absolutely nothing. It’s far easier, I think, to give women the empowering feeling of holding a cigarette than to take it away from them. So what’s interesting about this case study and the previous case study is that he took a consumer product for the first time — cigarettes — and turned it into something else of social value, that being a way of emancipating women in this society. And with bacon that became a health product. So he’s taking a consumer product and giving it a higher purpose in life.
Nick Hirshon: (25:09) Yeah, certainly. And as we said at the outset, before we move on from these interviews, you’re interviewing him when he’s already well into his 90s, he seems so sharp and he remembers so many things that had happened many, many decades ago. How did those interactions go? I mean, were you just marveling at his memory and how did he recall these things?
Shelley Spector: (25:31) It was remarkable. We were a great audience. Eventually Barry and I got married. We eventually had kids. We would bring the kids up there and he just loved our children, and we have lots and lots of tapes of him. So we got to see that side of him as well. We weren’t always talking about public relations as it turned out. You know, we would go take rides with him. We’d walk around the Harvard campus where he was an honorary doctorate and people would say, “Hello Dr. Bernays, hello Dr. Bernays.” And we got to know him very well as in addition to knowing his family.
So I’d say eventually we became family friends and you know, once in a while, I guess, you know, toward the end we would start talking again about public relations. I even started talking to him about public relations campaigns that I was doing and, and he would give me his feedback and it was still extraordinarily intellectual feedback. So it was quite a remarkable friendship for those ten years. And we are very, very lucky, my husband and I, to have known him the way we did.
Nick Hirshon: (26:45) Well, and you mentioned that your relationship was so close that after he passed away, you were invited to come to Cambridge, pick out some of what you wanted from his house to start the museum, some things that had not already gone on to the National Archives or Library of Congress, I suppose. And you’ve provided us at the Journalism History podcast with photographs of several of the items relating to Bernays that are in your collection.
And if our listeners would like to see them invite you to look at our social media posts on Facebook and Twitter, we’re going to put them up there, so you’ll get to look at what Shelley and I are looking at right now. But one of the items you gave us, kind of curious, is a photo of Bernays with President Calvin Coolidge. You mentioned him before. The White House had called Bernays to think of a way to get Coolidge , who came across as this dour, unsmiling president, to finally grin for the cameras. So running for re-election in 1924, can you tell us a little bit about how Bernays tried to get Coolidge to smile, finally?
Shelley Spector: (27:40) Right? I mean, Bernays never did anything directly. You know, he always had some sort of counterintuitive approach, you would say. And so how he did this, I don’t know, but he got Al Jolson and 50 actors and actresses from Hollywood and from Broadway to take a train down to have a breakfast with Calvin Coolidge and his wife. And even Al Jolson made up a song about being “cool with Coolidge.” And this made Coolidge laugh and they got the picture right at that second, and it kind of changed everybody’s attitude about Coolidge. The next day, in the New York Times, they had a headline saying, “President Nearly Laughs.”
Nick Hirshon: (28:32) [Laughs] A very funny headline. Yeah. “Coolidge Nearly Smiles,” right? Many years later, it’s still kind of comical to think about it. And so that’s 1924, trying to get President Coolidge to smile. In 1929, one of the other items that you sent along is a light bulb, used at the Light’s Golden Jubilee, this was a special event that Bernays put on to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Edison’s 1879 invention of the light bulb. And so there’s some connections between this item and Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, President Herbert Hoover. So can you tell us a little bit about this light bulb?
Shelley Spector: (29:08) Yes. And I encourage everybody to just type in on YouTube “Light’s Golden Jubilee” because there were three remarkable newsreels that were taken of this event. You know, remember too that Thomas Edison was a very old man at this point, but Henry Ford loved the guy. And so they convinced President Hoover to come up in a train and then go out to Dearborn, Michigan, to re-enact Thomas Edison’s invention of the light bulb, the original incandescent lamp.
And Bernays turned this into far more than just, you know, a publicity event for the electric companies, or for Thomas Edison himself. He created this as a whole celebration of American economy, its strength in the world, innovation. And you know, we remembered that all of the wonderful new inventions that have, that had come into the marketplace over the past twenty years as a result of, you know, Edison and other people’s inventions and the world had really changed. And, and the U.S. was leading the way in that at that point. So this was all being celebrated and this was all the messaging. Ironically, during the time of the Light’s Golden Jubilee, the market started going crazy and that Tuesday, the following Tuesday was Black Tuesday and the market crashed so, so much for, you know the great American economy. But he met them and here’s what happened.
Nick Hirshon: (30:45) But as you continue to tell us all these stories is just so remarkable. All of the luminaries that Bernays is meeting and also playing a big part in maybe their success or marketing their success, their careers. One of the other curious photos that you sent to us shows three seemingly unrelated items. And of course you’re going to tell us they all relate to Bernays in some way. A Western Union call box, a banana-shaped stapler, and a box of Lucky Strikes.
So I think we already know a little bit about the Lucky Strike boxes. We talked about the Torches of Freedom campaign, obviously relating to that, but what’s the deal here with the Western Union call box and the banana-shaped stapler?
Shelley Spector: (31:29) Right? So I put these three together as a group because the three of them we found in Bernays’s desk after he died. And these three represent clients of his. So the banana stapler was given to him by the United Fruit Company for all his work for Chiquita bananas. And then the call box was very interesting because what Bernays suggested to Western Union at a time when there are dozens of telegraph companies, what he suggested was for at Toastmasters around the country, when they’re talking about getting a telegram, that they should say getting a Western Union telegram, they should just stick that in front to describe the quality of the telegram that they were getting. And this seemed to stick through the decades. Today, none of us will remember any other telegraph company but Western Union. That’s how strong that little idea was.
Nick Hirshon: (32:26) Certainly. Again, the way that he still continues to impact us many years later. As you know, you said when we were emailing about this topic before, that single idea of a Kleenex or Jell-O or Band-Aid or some product that is so associated with that, you know, that it just becomes what we use to describe it. We forget, “Oh yeah, there’s a Band-Aid, you know, a bandage.” There’s a, a tissue, we just call it a Kleenex. And so last photo that you sent along some of the work that Bernays co-wrote with his wife, Doris Fleischman Bernays, and you mentioned that his wife was his business partner, a huge writing talent herself, yet because of the sexist business culture in the ‘20s to the ‘40s, she had to keep a low profile. She was not allowed to attend client meetings or given any credit for her ideas. The museum has many of these rare published writings, pieces she co-wrote with Edward Bernays and others she wrote herself, including her book, A Wife is Many Women. So how have you tried to bring Doris Fleischman Bernays to life in the museum?
Shelley Spector: (33:30) Well, we have a separate exhibit of, Doris Fleischman’s writings that I don’t think are anywhere else. You know, maybe there are copies at the Library of Congress, I don’t know. But her writings are remarkable. They are fantastic. Some of them were speeches, some of them turned into pamphlets, articles for Lady’s Home Journal. But every year we do a “PR Women Who Changed History” event in March during Women’s History Month. And we always talk about Doris Fleischmann Bernays.
A couple of years ago, we actually had one of her daughters, Anne Bernays, come down to talk about her mother, Doris. So she is very much present in the museum and by telling her story, we keep her memory alive. And we’re also showing how the differences today with the treatment of women at a workplace compared to back then when Doris couldn’t do any more than take stenography in a client room where, but at the same time, I know that she was responsible for a lot of the ideas.
I truly think that the Torches campaign was part hers because she herself was a suffragette back ten years before then. And I think that the Ivory Soap campaign, if you’re familiar with that was, was her idea. But there’s no way of knowing any of that. Bernays in his autobiography does not talk about Doris’s contributions to specific campaigns. I just have a feeling.
Nick Hirshon: (35:09) Right. Well, and it’s amazing to think that this woman who has kind of been lost to history in many ways, you’re bringing her back to life through all this and pointing this out many years later. So we appreciate that. Well, before we go here, if our listeners are now hearing about all these great items you have in the museum, maybe they’re going to be visiting New York City sometime soon, can you just tell us how can they find out more about you? Anything about what else you have, what they might expect to find if they’re in the city?
Shelley Spector: (35:38) Yes, absolutely. We have a website, prmuseum.org. There’s a link for visits. And we welcome visits, visitors five days a week, as long as you give us a couple of weeks’ advance notice, we welcome classes to come. We have a special lecture that we will give classes, or you can design them any way you want. And we’re always looking for new archives. And then most recently we added the archives, the artifacts of Harold Burson, and that is a pretty remarkable collection as well.
Nick Hirshon: (36:18) Well, thank you, Shelley, again, for all you’re doing to mark the legacy of Edward Bernays, to save it, preserve it for so many students and scholars, and thank you for coming on the Journalism History podcast.
Shelley Spector: (36:29) Thank you so much for having me, Nick.
Nick Hirshon: (36:31) Of course. Thanks for tuning into this episode of the Journalism History podcast and additional thanks to our sponsor, the Museum of Public Relations. Until next time, I’m your host, Nick Hirshon, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow: “Good night, and good luck.”