Edward L. Bernays — aka the “Father of Spin” — was a groundbreaking publicist who some say single-handedly defined the profession of public relations. His client list includes a who’s who of American corporations, celebrities and even Presidents. His campaigns were inventive, controversial and often wildly successful; many of which are still analyzed to this day. But would he have found the same success and impact were he to have worked in the age of Social Media? The world will never know.
In fact, the Ad world is still trying to figure out how this rapidly changing medium is affecting the way we process information and make consumer choices. And that’s precisely why Bernays makes an interesting topic of discussion. When he first started out, the field of Public Relations was in its infancy, without many precedents or rules of conduct. As a result, Bernays drew upon the writings of social psychologists and herd instinct theorists like Wilfred Trotter, Walter Lippmann and Gustave LeBon, as well as his very famous uncle, Sigmund Freud (yes, that Sigmund Freud). Bernays came to believe that publicists wield an immense power to shape society and advocated that the profession should be licensed, the same way that attorneys must pass a Bar exam in order to practice law.
Nearly a century later, we are at a similar juncture. The Internet has changed and continues to change all the old rules of marketing and PR. There are many people who would call themselves an expert in Social Media, but is such a term really applicable? Can it ever be? We are in the process of figuring that out, which requires no small amount of reflection, scrutiny and perspective. And to that end, I offer my own analysis of Past vs. Present, in the effort of helping advance our collective understanding of how to effectively reach and motivate customers in this new frontier we call Web 2.0.
Case Study: Bacon for Breakfast
It’s hard to believe, but there was a time when having bacon and eggs for breakfast was unheard of. Prior to the 1920s Americans saw bacon as a staple of lunch or dinner. Back then, a typical breakfast consisted of toast and a cup of coffee. However, a company called Beech-Nut Packing needed to boost sales of their bacon and asked PR man Edward Bernays for help. Rather than push the product through traditional means (billboard and magazine ads), Bernays took on the monumental task of creating an entirely new market for his client.
He started by commissioning a research study of the eating habits of Americans, and then found a doctor who concluded that, since the body loses energy during the night, a robust breakfast was preferable to a light breakfast. Bernays then sent the survey and the doctor’s recommendations to 5,000 physicians, along with a publicity packet touting Beech-Nut bacon and eggs as a hearty breakfast. Soon physicians were recommending bacon and eggs to their patients and word of mouth the most coveted form of advertising in the world spread throughout the United States. And just like that, Beech-Nut’s profits soared and the all-American breakfast of bacon and eggs was born.
It was a stroke of genius so well hidden that even now, most people don’t know the real story behind their favorite breakfast treat. Today, this type of marketing would fall under the term “Blue Ocean Strategy” and is attributable to the success of Cirque du Soleil, the Home Depot stores, and the Nintendo Wii. But in Bernays’ day, there was no buzzword to describe this innovative marketing ploy because he was the first person to employ it.
Would Bernays’ tactics have worked in Web 2.0? Yes and no. One could argue that with the Social Media tools available today, this campaign would’ve been even more successful in terms of immediacy and scope. Not to mention, the world is much smaller now thanks to the connectedness of Web 2.0. What took years to accomplish in the 1920s could be done in a matter of weeks today, and what was a nationwide trend back then, could ostensibly become a global sensation in the age of Facebook and Twitter.
However, there are other variables inherent in Social Media that could have just as easily presented major obstacles for this campaign. People are much more informed now than ever before. For every new trend, idea or conjecture put forth on the web, there is a relevant and almost immediate counterpoint. One can imagine that the mere mention of bacon as a “healthy breakfast alternative” would’ve sent people flocking to Snopes.com or the USDA website to validate or repudiate this claim. Blogs, tweets and YouTube videos would light up the Internet with factoids regarding the high fat, sulfite and cholesterol content of this meal. Angry Motrin Mom-like activist groups would spring up to demand apologies, promptly followed by cynical viral spoof videos, and finally, exhaustive over-analysis and dissection by so-called Social Media experts wagging their fingers with the benefit of hindsight, as if they knew the answers all along.
Still, I think that somehow Eddie would’ve found a way to overcome these obstacles. He was, after all, a master student of human behavior, group mentality and social trends. But more than that, he was a free thinker who forced himself to stand outside the crowd and peer in never allowing himself to fully participate in societal trends, and yet never living apart from them either.
Does a modern version of Eddie Bernays exist in the world of Social Media marketing? And if so, who are the Sigmund Freuds and William Trotters of today upon whose theories this marketing guru will lay his or her foundations? Perhaps it’s too soon to tell. Or perhaps s/he’s been here all along and we just don’t know it yet. Whatever the case, we live at a time where technological advances outpace society’s ability to process and benchmark its own changes. In that regard, we’re like children of privilege on Christmas morning, so busy opening the next present under the tree that we’ve scarcely stopped to appreciate the presents that came before it.
But Christmas isn’t going to end anytime soon. And the next Eddie Bernays, whoever that is, will have to figure out how to turn these new and wonderful toys into viable tools for shaping and crystallizing public opinion and consumer spending habits. Perhaps the new Eddie Bernays will be able to forecast Web 2.0 trends before they occur and ride the tide. Or perhaps he will simply use existing Social Media tools in new and unforeseen ways. Or maybe it’s something else altogether.
Until then, how would you like your bacon?