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Edward Bernays and the origins of public relations February 15, 2010

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American Edward Bernays is often credited with being an important “father of public relations” who discovered the relationship between psychotherapy and advertising. As Peter Stromberg from Psychology Today explained, Bernays is known for revolutionizing several techniques in marketing. For instance, he frequently used “pseudo-events,” or staged happenings that were widely covered as news. In his most notable effort, Bernays hired women to march in New York’s Easter Parade while smoking cigarettes. He told photographers that suffragettes would be carrying “torches of freedom.” When they put the story on the front pages, Bernays almost single-handedly made it more socially acceptable for women to smoke and thus provided his employers (the tobacco companies) more potential customers.

There are many great documentaries about Edward Bernays, including several stories that you can access on NPR’s website. However, among the best is the following segment from a series by the BBC and Adam Curtis titled “The Century of Self.”

Discussion Questions:

1.  The documentary above on Bernays claims that “public relations” is essentially a fancy title for “propaganda.” Are the two really the same? Why, or why not?

2.  One might say that some of the techniques that Bernays made famous are reprehensible and unethical. Who determines what is ethical in public relations?

3.  How might you justify some of the techniques that Bernays introduced to marketing?

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