Time Capsule

Who knew that Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis and critic of all things American, was an unwitting contributor to the rise of Western consumer culture?

Women sporting cigarettes as a symbol of female empowerment and the ubiquitous bacon-and-egg breakfast were two public relations campaigns inspired by Freudian ideas. The link between theory and practice was Edward L. Bernays, the acknowledged father of public relations and nephew of Sigmund Freud.

Bernays was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1891 but grew up in New York City. His mother was Freud's sister and his father was the brother of Freud's wife, Martha Bernays. He maintained contact with his uncle, and the family often joined Freud for summer holidays in the Alps. Bernays began his career shaping public opinion by creating a media campaign to raise awareness of venereal disease and sexual hypocrisy. But his application of psychoanalytic principles to public relations and advertising came only after reading Freud's "General Introductory Lectures," a gift from Freud to his nephew in thanks for a box of Havana cigars.

In this case, a cigar did prove to be much more than a cigar. The marriage of psychoanalysis and public relations, facilitated by the box of Havanas, made Bernays a very wealthy man.

Manipulating behaviors

Intrigued by Freud's notion that irrational forces drive human behavior, Bernays sought to harness those forces to sell products for his clients. In his 1928 book, "Propaganda," Bernays hypothesized that by understanding the group mind, it would be possible to manipulate people's behavior without their even realizing it. To test this hypothesis, Bernays launched one of his most famous public relations campaigns: convincing women to smoke.

In 1929, it was taboo for women to smoke in public and those who flouted convention were thought to be sexually permissive. Bernays' client was George Washington Hill, president of the American Tobacco Company, who envisioned breaking this taboo to broaden the market for his Lucky Strike brand. Bernays asked Hill for permission to consult with New York's leading psychoanalyst and Freud disciple, Dr. A.A. Brill, and was granted this unusual request.

This was the first but not the last time Bernays would consult with psychoanalysts to help shape his public relations campaigns. When asked what cigarettes symbolized to women, Brill's response was that cigarettes were symbolic of male power.

Equating smoking with challenging male power was the cornerstone of Lucky Strike's "Torches of Freedom" campaign, which debuted during New York's annual Easter Parade on April 1, 1929. Bernays had procured a list of debutantes from the editor of Vogue magazine and pitched the idea that they could contribute to the expansion of women's rights by lighting up cigarettes and smoking them in the most public of places—Fifth Avenue. The press was warned beforehand and couldn't resist the story. The "Torches of Freedom Parade" was covered not only by the local papers, but also by newspapers nationwide and internationally. Bernays was duly convinced that linking products to emotions could cause people to behave irrationally. In reality, of course, women were no freer for having taken up smoking, but linking smoking to women's rights fostered a feeling of independence.

Bringing home the bacon

Given Freud's addiction to cigars, his link through Bernays to women smoking is not altogether surprising. Understanding Freud's connection to the successful marketing of cured meat is more of a stretch. The Beechnut Packing Company was suffering lagging sales in one of its key meat products: bacon. In "Propaganda" (1928), Bernays wrote about his campaign to increase bacon sales and contrasted Freud's group psychology with behaviorist principles. An "old style" behaviorist campaign would repeat a stimulus to create a habit—inundate consumers with full-page ads and follow up with an incentive or reward by offering discount coupons. But in creating the new Freudian-style campaign, Bernays asked himself, "Who influences what the public eats?" His answer was to survey physicians and ask them whether they would recommend a light breakfast or a hearty breakfast. Physicians overwhelmingly recommended a hearty breakfast, paving the way for Bernays to convince Americans to swap their usual juice, toast and coffee for the now-ubiquitous, all-American "hearty" breakfast of bacon and eggs.

Was Freud aware of how his nephew was using psychoanalytic principles to, as Bernays termed it, "engineer consent?" From all accounts, he knew very little, but what he did know failed to impress. When Bernays sent Freud a copy of his first book, "Crystallizing Public Opinion" (1923), Freud's terse response was "I have received your book. ... As a truly American production it interested me greatly" (as cited in Justman, 1994, p. 465).

His veiled sarcasm notwithstanding, when facing financial ruin in Vienna, Freud was forced to ask his nephew for help. Bernays responded to Freud's request by arranging to publish his works in America, which provided Freud with much-needed American dollars. And while Freud coveted fame, he drew the line at publicity. When Bernays suggested he promote himself in America by writing popular articles for Cosmopolitan, Freud was appalled by the idea. Even the father of public relations couldn't engineer Freud's consent to participate so openly in American popular culture.


Lisa Held is a doctoral student in the History and Theory of Psychology program at York University in Toronto.

Suggested reading

  • Axelrod, A. (2008). Profiles of folly: History's worst decisions and why they went wrong. New York: Sterling Publishing.

  • Bernays, E.L. (1923). Crystallizing public opinion. New York: Boni and Liveright.

  • Bernays, E.L. (1928). Propaganda. New York: H. Liveright.

  • Justman, S. (1994). Freud and his nephew. Social Research, 61, 457–476.