Thursday, April 25, 2024


 Larry Tye: The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations. 1998. Crown Publishers, New York. 320 pages, including 20 pages of notes and a 7-page bibliography Crown Publishers, ISBN 978-0-517-70435-6

 Of the books I’ve read in recent years, this one perhaps had the biggest impact on me. The reasons are four: first, my career was mostly spent in public relations; second, I love history; third, I have read a number of Bernays’ books over the years, and enjoyed them all; fourth, the author has a splendid writing style, and wrote what I think will always be the authoritative work on this man.

Author                                                                                                                                     A journalist with the Boston Globe at time of writing, Tye augmented his knowledge as a Nieman scholar at Harvard.

Book                                                                                                                                         The book is superbly written, and has a lot of depth. According to the terms of Bernays’ will, on his death an enormous volume of his papers, campaign notes and other material became available to scholars. 

                                                                                               Dubbed the “Prince of Puff” and the “Baron of Ballyhoo” by detractors during his lifetime, Bernays died in 1995, 103 years old. During that long life, he was one of the most influential publicists of the 20th century. The nephew of Sigmund Freud, Bernays brought an astute grasp of human behaviour to public relations. He opened his own PR firm in 1919 and launched celebrated publicity campaigns for American Tobacco, Ivory Soap, the United Fruit Company, the platforms of presidents from Calvin Coolidge to Ike Eisenhower, and many, many more.

Tye attributes Bernay's success to a marketing philosophy (termed the “Big Think”), which combined high-concept publicity stunts, endorsements from doctors, national surveys and other forms of publicity whose actual product endorsement was cleverly veiled. For example, to  promote Lucky Strike cigarettes among women in an age in which women smoking in public was still a no-no,  in 1928 he arranged for a parade of smoking debutantes to march down New York’s Fifth Avenue. To market Ivory Soap, he created a hugely popular national soap-sculpting contest. A domineering and self-absorbed man, he never missed a chance to promote himself. In an era of mass communications, he said, “modesty is a private virtue and a public fault.

Titled A Question of Paternity, Tye’s last chapter brings an odd kind of balance to this superb book. In it, he discusses other innovative PR guys and notes that Bernays was not the father of PR in several senses. To some degree, Bernays eventually became a pariah in the industry that he helped to create, because he overdid his claims.

Then he argues that  in many senses Bernays was not the father of spin at all. Perhaps “the true father was Aaron,” he speculates. “Back in biblical days God annointed him spokesman for his brother Moses, charged with explaining to the Hebrews why it was time to pack their bags and head across the desert.” Alternatively, he suggests it could have been Julius Caesar, Martin Luther, America’s Founding Fathers, or many others.

Evaluation                                                                                                                                In terms of the 20th century, Bernays was just one among many to help shape the development of PR; countless others have also contributed to its development. These collective efforts have led to the creation of numerous social media and to remarkable advertising practices – online and on air. He was a significant early contributor to the contemporary world, but in real terms his contributions to the modern world were minor. That said, when he was at his peak in the mid-Twentieth Century, he was a force in America to be reckoned with. 

Monday, February 12, 2024

Review of Walter Youngquist's book GeoDestinies


Book Review by Peter McKenzie-Brown

GeoDestinies: The inevitable control of Earth resources over nations and individuals, by Walter Youngquist. 

500 pages; 29 chapters plus preface and epilogue. Originally published in 1997 by National Book Company, in Portland, Oregon. Born in 1921, Youngquist updated the book in 2012, and made the updated version available to all online; click here to download the PDF. He died in 2018.

Walter Youngquist was a petroleum geologist and a prof at the University of Oregon. He studied geological issues in 70 countries, investigating the relationships between earth resources to nations and individuals. In this book, he discusses an astonishing range of topics – from the origins of life to the increasing plunder of our planet’s resources.

Why I chose this book: The topic for this month is “the future.” This book explores the future by going deep into the past.

The image above is the cover of the version I have just reread; I first read it shortly after it came off the press, perhaps in 1999. The image below, on the right, is the cover of the later, revised version. In my opinion, this book is superb. It is well documented (up to eight pages of endnotes per chapter) and uses graphics occasionally to illustrate trends.

Themes: The book doesn’t spend a lot of time on the high-profile issue of climate change, although that is certainly part of its agenda. Instead, Youngquist focuses on the rapid depletion of formerly abundant volumes of natural resources – resources which predate the arrival of humankind.

The gist is that Earth’s resources are now being so rapidly used that the existence of vast human populations may soon be in peril. Numerous resources are being degraded and depleted — aquifers, topsoil, hydrocarbons, minerals, lakes, forests, farmland and so on and so forth. Rather dramatically, he somewhere says that once an area is covered with asphalt, it will never again be farmed.

The author cites examples of smaller countries with access to uncommon mineral resources. For short-term gain, they may extract and export what they own. But then what? Their only mineral is gone. What’s left for their futures?

Consumers pay little attention to resource limits, but there’s a fair amount of chatter about the impact of carbon emissions on the climate. I suspect that most of the people in this club are also concerned about this issue. However, Youngquist argued, mainstream experts repeatedly tell us not to worry, essentially promoting blind faith in miracles: In some mysterious way, we will find a smooth and easy transition to a clean, green, renewable utopia. The message I’ve heard often over the years is that we all need to obey the three Rs: Reduce, reuse and recycle. Yes, but….

Youngquist argues that we are living dangerously by destroying astonishing amounts of non-renewable resources. To use the example Albertans are most familiar with, we’ve been shipping oil and gas east, west, and south through vast networks of pipelines. Our society, and most of us in this club individually, have benefitted from these businesses. But these binges can’t be repeated in this province. Non-renewable energy is finite in volume – by definition.

It took more than 500 million years for geologic forces to transform plant and animal residue into fossil fuels — coal, oil, and natural gas. It will take less than 500 years for humans to extract and burn them. We live during a brief blip in Earth history – an ecological hurricane. The author’s core message is a blunt warning. “The momentum of population growth and resource consumption is so great that a collision course with disaster is inevitable. Large problems lie not very far ahead.…In some respects, the Twenty-first Century will be like the Twentieth Century in reverse.”

The public believes that adequate “renewable” substitutes will become available as needed. Alternative energy is not clean, green and free. The facts, though, are more complex. Scaling up to replace non-renewable energy would require vast land area, roads, power lines, and backup for when adequate wind or sunbeams are unavailable. Manufacturing solar panels requires such critical minerals as cobalt, gallium, germanium, indium, manganese, tellurium, titanium, and zinc. Each wind turbine requires tons of concrete, steel, and other resources. As we seek those resources, another cycle begins.

I strongly recommend this book.