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4 PR campaigns that made modern marketing

The standardised marketing approach in the modern age is to appeal to the target markets’ deepest desires, and make them feel like they want, or even need the service or product on offer.

Up until the 1920s, however, this concept of creating consumer appeal was non-existent. The man who introduced this psychoanalytical approach to the field was ‘the father of PR’, Edward Bernays. It is no coincidence he also happened to be related to the radical psychologist, Sigmund Freud.

Wielding the pioneering psychological insights of his Great Uncle Sigmund, Bernays set out to experiment as to how he could shape public opinion and decision making through PR campaigns.

Over the course of his illustrious career he was commissioned by a vast range American corporations, and also worked in the public sector. Here we’ll take a look at some of his landmark campaigns which redefined the marketing and communications industry.

Torches of freedom

In 1929, public relations was a new experimental field that Bernays had effectively invented. His hugely successful campaign to encourage women to smoke Lucky Strike cigarettes that year became the stuff of legend. During this period, it was still taboo for women to smoke in public. Furthermore, market research had suggested that Lucky Strike’s green packaging had put women off buying them, as it wasn’t a desirable colour.

Bernays applied his unique approach to overcome these hurdles. The green packaging was deemed too expensive to replace. The answer - to instead make the brand’s specific shade of green the premier colour of the fashion season. Bernays convinced fashion designers to incorporate the colour into their new season designs, and held a ‘Green Gala’ at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel for some of society’s most prominent trend-setters.

The audacious campaign went further. To break the taboo of smoking in public, Bernays linked Lucky Strike cigarettes to the women’s liberation movement, and staged a demonstration at the 1929 Easter parade, having fashionable young women photographed flaunting their “torches of freedom” – Lucky Strike cigarettes. The brand became the symbol of gender equality in the U.S. during those years.

Hearty breakfast

We’ve all heard the saying ‘’breakfast is the most important meal of the day’’, and Bernays went someway to creating that. The Beech-Nut Packing Company was struggling to sell one of its largest meat products, bacon, so employed the expertise of the reputable Bernays. Rather than simply reduce the price, Bernays posed a more probing question – who tells the public what to eat?

Bernays spoke to numerous physicians, and together they concluded that a ‘hearty’ breakfast was better than a light one. The American breakfast of the time – toast, orange juice, and coffee – would be put on the scrap heap. Bernays got 5,000 physicians to sign a statement that agreed a protein-rich, heavy breakfast of, say, bacon, and eggs, was healthier than a light one. The petition was published in newspapers, and the all-American breakfast was born, with a huge spike in sales of bacon. It’s no wonder he was also known as the ‘master of spin’.

The guilt barrier

Bernays applied more psychoanalytical methodology to improving the sales of Betty Crocker instant cake mix. After a focus group conducted on the target market – American housewives – he concluded that they felt an unconscious guilt for using a product that required so little effort to make. The answer – give them a greater sense of participation, by requiring them to add an egg to the mixture. Sales soared as the symbolic egg tickled the depths of the subconscious, and removed the barrier of guilt.

Cleaning up the act

Bernays’ work with Procter & Gamble’s ‘Ivory Soap’ is another textbook case of marketing psychology in action. In the Bernays line of thinking, he aimed to broaden the market by tackling childrens’ innate distaste for soap and bathing, while distinguishing the brand from competitors.

Inspired by an artist he had met who used soap instead of wax to carve miniature sculptures, Bernays created the annual National Soap Sculpture Competition to inspire children, ‘’the enemies of soap’’, to get creative with it. The competition ran annually for 25 years and involved millions of children, and cast the name ‘Ivory Soap’ into the public consciousness.

Bernays also started events such as a soap yacht race in Central Park, to prove it floated better than competitor brands, and employed a medical consultant to survey American hospitals on their preference for white, unperfumed soap such as Ivory, rather than the coloured, scented soaps most competitors used.

As you can imagine, Bernays’ methods were, and still are, extremely contentious, especially when utilised in the public sphere and politics. But the introduction of psychoanalytical techniques in shaping consumer demand is the foundation upon which all modern marketing is built, and Bernays was the man behind it.

If you’re interested in learning the tricks of the trade, and opening professional opportunities in marketing, why not consider applying for a Dual MSc & MA in Strategic Marketing?

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