This isn’t a post about politics, the military, flags, patriots, or anything like that. This is about the shaping of society by a man who changed the world. It’s about one of the most influential people ever, a man who has caused untold misery and you’ve probably never heard of him.
His name is Edward Bernays.
I’m glad you asked. Buckle up and this week we’ll look at how he changed the world we live in, how he has made you unhappy, and how it may be too late for society but you can start making better decisions.
Edward Bernays was a nephew of Sigmund Freud, who himself is widely considered to be the grand-daddy of modern psychology and made quite an impact on the world. Bernays created the role of a Public Relations Manager. When the tobacco industry wanted to increase sales by encouraging women to break with social roles and start smoking, it was Bernays who made cigarettes a symbol of the women’s rights movement, calling them “torches of freedom” and encouraging women to smoke in public. My grandma used to smoke like a chimney and her freedom helped her die of lung cancer. Thanks, Ed.
Of course, we all make our own decisions, but decisions don’t just come out of thin air. They come out of weighing up options, risks, benefits, costs, outcomes, past experiences… We make decisions based on the things we have learned from the past, that will bring about the results we want in the future. Admittedly, sometimes we make decisions based on the very near future without considering the long term future, but still, the principle remains. In the case of smoking, experience said “I am not treated equally” and the future they wanted was to have the same freedom as men. Bernays, being paid a handsome sum of money made cigarettes the symbol of inequality.
“Men (people) are rarely aware of the real reasons which motivate their actions.” – Edward Bernays
Bernays understood psychology, and was a master of social psychology. He told women that smoking would set them free and give them equality. Women believed, and women dying of lung cancer increased 500% between 1960 and 1990. Although women aren’t dying from smoking related disease at quite the same rate as men, they have come a long way and are much more equal than they were in the oppressive 1920s.
Bernays is the man who told us we couldn’t be happy until we had a little more, just enough to be equal with the person on the next rung up. He is the one who encourages the lemming to catch up to the one in front because, you know, you want to get their first, right?
Here are today’s three takeaways:
1 – Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.
2 – In the individualistic world Bernays shaped, we will always be dissatisfied if we are comparing ourselves to others and there is always something more that will make us happy.
3 – We can’t escape society, but we can make choices within it. We can decide whether we want to be like everyone else, or find a way to create our own future.
We like to feel in charge of our own destiny. We like to think we shape our own future. We see inspirational messages about shaking off the past, but how can we do that when our past is the only resource we have to make decisions and create new ideas? We’ll be looking at those questions this week.
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The title of this article was shamelessly lifted from the lyrics of Concrete Fields by The Manic Street Preachers