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The Man Who Made You Want Shiny Things

One man changed the world of advertising forever – and in so doing created a monster.
Advertising changed forever in the 1920s, and so did the world. It was described as it was happening by journalist Samuel Strauss in 1927, who wrote, “The American citizen’s first importance to his country is now no longer that of citizen but that of consumer.”

Before the 1920s, ordinary citizens mostly bought products that they needed (barring a few luxury goods), and advertising’s function was simply to inform people of a product’s attractive qualities. Qualities like durability and effectiveness.

When you bought a new product, it was because the old one had worn out and the new one would last longer.

Our jump from that mindset to the age of brand identity, desire economy and disposable everything has not just been a calculated evolution instigated by big corporations, but largely the brainchild of one man.

Edward Bernays was Sigmund Freud’s American nephew. During World War I, he used his uncle’s psychological theories to aid the war effort through propaganda in Europe, playing on people’s subconscious desires and fears to achieve favorable results for the Allies.

“When I came back to the United States,” Bernays recalled many years later, “I decided that if you could use propaganda for war, you could certainly use it for peace. And propaganda got to be a bad word because of the Germans using it, so what I did was to try and find some other word.”

Bernays founded the Council of Public Relations. It was the first time the term had been used.

The advances made in manufacturing during the war had created the danger of overproduction. Ordinary people’s buying habits could simply not keep up with the speed with which goods could be produced.

Advertising, under the tutelage of Bernays, would turn into the science of making people desire things that were being produced. Things they did not strictly need. The economic system, with its need forever increasing growth, required it.

“You have taken over the job of creating desire and have transformed people into constantly moving happiness machines,” President Herbert Hoover told a group of advertising men as the science came into its own. “Machines which have become the key to economic progress.”

Bernays introduced some of the mainstays of what we now know as advertising to the world: linking cars with ideas of sexual potency, associating celebrities with his clients’ products (and indeed with dull politicians) and even creating the idea of buying clothes not as functional items, but to “express oneself.”

Bernays shattered the taboo surrounding women smoking, organizing publicity stunts involving attractive young women lighting up in droves and pretending it was a protest.

The practice of language manipulation so common in advertising today originated with him, too.

The cigarettes at his debutante “protest” were referred to as “torches of freedom.” He also improved sales of ready-made cake mix astronomically by adding the instruction “add one egg” to the recipe.

In these and many others ways, Bernays used subconscious drives, as opposed to rational thought, to get people to consume.

And consume they did. Banks funded the new department stores, and people who had never before lived beyond their means were offered credit to buy things they desired rather than needed.

Today, the science created by Bernays is more sophisticated, and more economically necessary, than ever before.

Branding, the manipulation of “cool,” the association of everything from hygiene products to shoes with abstract ideals we want embedded in our self image – these are cornerstones of an economy that requires endless growth.

Without them we might return to a pre-1920s state, angered that our goods are designed to wear out and unwilling to be part of the engine that endlessly uses more resources and dumps more waste products.

We might feel less “need” for new goods and luxury, which require prices so low that the workers who produce our goods must live as slaves.

Could our economy survive such a return to pre-public relations sanity? And if it can’t, is it really an economy we want?

Jonathan Langley is the editor of BMS World Mission’s Mission Catalyst magazine. A version of this article first appeared in the Issue 4, 2014, edition of Mission Catalyst and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @JontyLangley and BMS @BMSWorldMission.