The Art of Mass Manipulation

Who Invented Celebrities?

Do you know who “invented” celebrities and taught people to look up to them as role models?

Edward Bernays is called “The Father of Spin” for a reason. He practically invented mass manipulation techniques that are still used on us today to influence our decisions, not just our purchasing decisions, but even our political choices as well!

It was him who said: “If you could use propaganda for war you could certainly use it for peace. Propaganda got to be a bad word because of the Germans using it, so what I did was try to find some other words, so we found the word “Council on Public Relations”. It was the first time the term had ever been used.


Since the end of the 19th century, America had become a mass industrial society with millions clustered together in the cities. Bernays was determined to find a way to manage and alter the way these new crowds thought and felt for the benefit of the corporations that were trying to sell their products to them.

To do this he turned to the writings of his Uncle Sigmund Freud. He began to formulate the idea that you had to play to people’s irrational emotions and he set out to “experiment” with the minds of the popular classes.

His most dramatic experiment was to persuade women to smoke!

How Bernays Got Women to Start Smoking

At that time there was a taboo against women smoking and the president of the American tobacco corporation asked Bernays to find a way of breaking that taboo, so he sure did. His plot involved persuading rich women to light their “torches of freedom” in a public parade, and he tipped off the media to put the “scandal” on the front pages across America. The rest is history.

His trick was that irrelevant objects could become powerful emotional symbols of how you wanted to be seen by others; he was being paid to sell more products to more people, and he was not selling to your intellect, but rather to your irrational emotions.

Bernays sold you how that product promised to make you “feel” regardless of how good that product actually was, or whether you even needed it at all. With this breakthrough, he basically rescued American mass production manufacturers from worrying that there would come a point when people had enough goods and would simply stop buying.

Up until that moment, goods from shoes to cars were promoted in functional terms, for their durability and the purpose they served. But Bernays made corporations realize they can sell a lot more if they shifted their direct strategy to a more manipulative technique.

As one leading Wall Street banker wrote: “We must shift America from a needs to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things even before the old had been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”

Using Famous People to Sell Products and Ideas

Bernays began to create many of the techniques of mass consumer persuasion that we now live with. He was employed by William Randolph Hurst to promote his new women’s magazines, and Bernays glamorized them by placing articles and advertisements that linked products made by others of his clients to famous film stars who were also his clients.

Bernays also began the practice of product placement in movies, and he dressed the stars at the films premieres with clothes and jewelry from other firms he represented, thus creating the “red carpet” legend for both the actors and the viewers.

He employed psychologists to issue reports that said products were good for you and then pretended they were independent studies. He paid celebrities to repeat the new and essential message: that you bought things not just for need but to express your inner sense of your self to others.

Bernays soon became famous as the man who understood the mind of the crowd, and in 1924 President Coolidge contacted him. The press portrayed the President as a dull humorless figure. Bernays’ solution was to do exactly the same as he had done with products.

He persuaded 34 famous film stars to visit the White House, and for the first time politics became involved with public relations. The next day every newspaper in the United States had a front-page story: “President Coolidge Entertains Actors at White House”. And the rest is history.

Now you know who turned actors, singers and football players into “heroes” and “idols” and taught you to “worship” them!

If you think for a moment, you won’t find anything particularly “heroic” about any of those activities, but somehow Edward Bernays managed to convince the world that famous people are automatically credible role models to follow and emulate in their every move.

The link is very obviously irrational and emotional, as there is no connection between someone’s ability to act, sing or do sports and their moral values or intellectual abilities. So why is his trick still working?

Edward Bernays’ legacy of deception and mass manipulation still lives on today and we’re all falling for it exactly like our gullible great-grandparents.

First published: April 2013

About Sahar El-Nadi
Sahar El-Nadi is an Egyptian freelance journalist who traveled to 25 countries around the world and currently based in Cairo. Sahar also worked in many people-related careers in parallel, including presenting public events and TV programs; instructing training courses in communication skills; cross cultural issues; image consulting for public speakers; orientation for first-time visitors to the Middle East; and localization consulting for international educational projects.