And furthermore ...

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Saturday 14 April 2012


Modern Beauties cigarette cards

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.”
Edward Bernays

In 1917 Sigmund Freud published Introduction to Psychoanalysis and introduced a new word into popular culture. In America his nephew, Edward Bernays had already read some of Freud’s work as well as Gustave le Bon’s 1896 book, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, and thought there was a use for psychoanalysis beyond the dubious treatment of hysteria. It could also be used to control people’s buying habits and the way they voted. In effect, he argued, the crowd was an organism that could be prodded to move in certain directions and this was actually necessary to prevent the decline into anarchy. Democracy was a meaningless sentiment unless leaders could make the crowd behave according to their will. Before Bernays came along, Hollywood had created one idea of mass desire but no one understood its science.

In 1928 the American Tobacco Company approached Bernays with a problem. Socially it was bad form for women to smoke and that cut out a huge slice of the market for the company. It asked him to find a way to persuade America’s women to take up cigarettes. To do that he turned to one of his uncle’s disciples, Abraham Brill, who outlined a plan to convince women that smoking was a mark of individual identity. In more psychoanalytical terms, a cigarette was a phallic object and if women were directed to think that smoking represented a mastery of the phallus, the ATC stood to make a fortune. Bernays’ first stunt was to have a group of ‘suffragettes’ light up simultaneously during the 1929 Easter Parade, galvanising the reporters and photographers on hand to forget the floats and marching bands and focus on the women and their ‘torches of freedom’. It worked. Within a couple of years women across the US were smoking as a sign of their emancipation. The glaring paradox that they were stating their individuality by engaging in a single act wasn’t lost on Bernays. That was how desire worked. Most of his campaigns worked on the premise that by wanting what everyone else had, a person was declaring their uniqueness.

Bernays also understood how to tap glamour. The notion existed long before he took it on but no one as yet had appreciated how it could be used to control public opinion. In October 1924 President Calvin Coolidge was perceived as dull, humourless and something of a liability with an election just weeks away. Taking on the campaign to restore his image, Bernays invited twenty eight Hollywood stars to a breakfast at the White House. Reports suggest the President moved about the crowd typically unimpressed by the names on the guest list but that was beside the point. He was being photographed shaking hands and talking to people like Al Jolson, the idea being that some of the glamour would rub off. Coolidge won the election though analysts suggest he would have anyway, his Democrat John Davis being regarded as even more dull and conservative.

He had his greatest success selling glamour for the fashion industry in the 1920s, driving a message to America’s women that certain clothes didn’t just make you feel good because of their texture or the way you looked in a mirror. That feeling you got putting on a Cheney Brothers gown came from deep inside. It was your identity showing through. Wear one and you became a more complete woman. The market Bernays pitched to were the middle class women who had surplus income to play with and only needed to be convinced that they needed that new outfit to feel whole. A lot of these women had mothers who had made do with one or two pairs of shoes and wore them till they fell apart. Bernays’ job was to shake them loose of that old notion.

 Modern fashion photography supposedly started with people like Edward Steichen but Bernays’ papers at the Library of Congress show that before the photographers made their mark he was really pushing for outfits to be depicted in a contemporary light, using modern art and design based on work by Georgia O’Keefe and Cezanne to suggest that the very latest in fashion was as necessary as it was sophisticated. The way these outfits looked in photographs was as essential as how they did in real life since it was the photographs women would see first. Technically, he wasn’t directing the photo shoots but he was giving the companies the ideas for how their designs should look.

Though Steichen gets the credit for glamour photography, the photographs here owe more to Bernays than they do him. For one thing, they came from cigarette packets, which Bernays would have approved of, knowing instinctively that the people most likely to collect them were women. Also, they lent smoking that glamour women needed to feel as they lit up. He would have certainly agreed with the idea of using images of Hollywood actresses as marketing tools though he would have pointed out that for a campaign to be effective the women had to inhabit a desirable dream world that was nevertheless, in theory, obtainable. Too sophisticated and removed from reality and the ordinary women who kept consuming in the hope they too would enter this world would soon enough give up and return to simpler values. The secret to convincing the public that buying something would give them entrance to a higher world was to make them believe that whatever it was they bought was all they needed to get there. Notice that the women project a kittenish, girl next door persona. The people involved in the marketing wanted men to think they were available, women to think they were just like them.  

There’s a lot more to be said about Bernays; the grotesque irony for example that his use of his uncle’s ideas would have a marked influence on Goebbels, who used Bernays’ theories in a campaign to whip up hatred against the Viennese Jews, forcing Freud into exile. There was his campaign in the 1950s for the United Fruit Company that was so successful that even the nominally left wing press in the US believed communist rebels were about to take over several Central American countries. There’s his legacy in Hollywood too. The notion that a Hollywood star could campaign on behalf of famine victims in Africa, getting the ear of presidents while being a functionary in a corporation partly responsible for the famine is in its way an ultimate realization of Bernays’ theories on the crowd.


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