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. 

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