Edward Bernays: How Proganda Machine Works

The following is a transcript of this video.

From 1945 – 1991 my country Albania was under the totalitarian regime of enver hoxha.

It was the most closed country in the world, and for the vast majority of the population, extreme poverty was an inescapable reality.

I used to read about all of this in school and thought, how could they trust this monster? How could they live like that and not react?

Now that I’m grown up, I understand the odds are high that I would have become just like the rest – Someone who works all day for a loaf of cornbread and thinks life is good.

Propaganda is such a powerful set of tools that…

It can convince people to live in misery and think they are blessed.

It can convince people to smoke poison and think it makes them look cool and relieve stress.

It can convince people to watch countless hours of cheap debates instead of informing themselves about issues that really matter.

One of the pioneers of propaganda was Edward Bernays. Even though most people don’t know him, he was one of the most influential people in the 20th century.

If you were a powerful individual wanting to improve your image or sell more products, you would call Bernays. His campaigns were grand and expensive but very effective.

He died in 1991, leaving an arsenal of weapons of mass manipulation still being used today.

That’s why we will analyze the primary elements of public opinion… and how people like Bernays use this hidden mechanism so that when we realize what happened (if we do), it’s too late.

The Unconscious Mind

According to Freud, the unconscious can influence our behavior, even if we aren’t aware of its influence. Like an iceberg, the most important part is the one you can’t see.

It contains important information such as motives, feelings, and conflicts.

It also contains primitive instincts such as the need for survival, sexual urges, tribal mentality, and fears we are unaware of.

And society teaches us to hide or repress certain feelings and motivations because it might be inappropriate for others.

But it’s still there.

For example, you’ve seen politicians who speak rudely in public and don’t lose supporters.

Quite the opposite, they gain even more support because he expresses what those people truly feel.

Feelings that they might not even admit to themselves.

Bernays used the insights of Freud and Gustave Le Bon to design campaigns that influence people on a deep emotional level.

In other words, if you trigger strong emotions, they are more likely to comply with your request, whether it benefits them. They’ll take that message to their heart and include it as part of their reality.

This leads us to…


Gustave Le Bon was a French Sociologist and the author of The Crowd: A study of the Popular Mind.

He offered advice on the usefulness of images and theatrics as tools of persuasion and referred to the unconscious powers of suggestion.

He argued that the popular mind wasn’t driven by reason but by illogical and primitive forces.

What I want to focus on is this quote from the book:

“The masses have never thirsted after the truth. They turn aside from evidence that is not to their taste, preferring to deify error if error seduces them.

Crowds have always undergone the influence of illusions. Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master.

Whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.”

Let me give you an example from my life to understand how illusions are created, how you feed them, and how they can make you miserable.

I had an anxiety disorder for many years, and it started with

Irrational thoughts

That are turned into irrational beliefs.

Then the brain responds by building defense mechanisms, meaning I unconsciously act to protect these beliefs.

I built a new perception consequently about myself and the world.

And it comes to the point that I live on Illusions.

The most problematic thing is that I spend most of my time processing thoughts and don’t act.

It’s like I’m in the middle of the ocean on a small boat, and there’s no land in sight.

I got into that situation because I accepted those thoughts and beliefs without questioning them.

Basically, I brainwashed myself.

Eventually, I got tired of living in constant suffering and decided to change…

That’s why I went to therapy and session after session; she helped me think rationally, the defense mechanisms rose less and less, my perception changed, the illusion I had built fell, and I started to act.

By acting against my beliefs, I saw I was living my life based on Illusion.

Now, I must point out how I reacted to the attempts of the psychologist to help me!

At the beginning of therapy, I was bitter, angry, and often rude to her.

Think about it for a moment.

Even though holding on to those illusions was harmful and I desperately wanted to change…

Still, it took a lot of work to break them.

The main reason is that living on illusions is easy. It’s something we know. Even though we might feel miserable in that zone, we have learned to live with it.

A similar thing is with the masses…

They create illusions about specific situations or people. And if you feed their illusions, they’ll accept you, and you can influence them.

But if you try to destroy their illusions, even for their benefit, you’ll face incredible resistance… to say the least.

So far, we have a general idea of how people get brainwashed and how adamant they are to stay in that zone.

Now we will get into more specific strategies they use to manipulate the masses.

The Power of Symbols

In 1929, George Hill, the President of American Tobacco, was in a meeting with Bernays, and he was upset. He said we lose 50% of the market because women are not smoking outdoors.

We need to do something about it…

Back then, it was acceptable for women to smoke at home, but women smoking in public were seen negatively. And Bernays wasn’t sure how they could overcome this social taboo. 

So he paid a hefty fee to Dr A. A. Brill, a psychoanalyst and disciple of Freud.

Dr Brill advised:

“It is perfectly normal for women to want to smoke cigarettes.

The emancipation of women has suppressed many of their feminine desires.

More women now do the same work as men do. Many women bear no children; those who do bear have fewer children.

Feminine traits are masked. Cigarettes, which are equated with men, become torches of freedom.”

   – Biography of an Idea by Edward Bernays

“Torches of Freedom” – That phrase inspired Bernays.

He came up with the idea of sending a group of prominent women lighting cigarettes on Fifth Avenue during the Easter Sunday parade.

He gathered a list of 30 social activists and asked his secretary, Bertha Hunt, to send them a telegram.

She posed as a women’s rights advocate, trying to gather supporters for the torches of freedom campaign. 

On Easter Sunday, ten young women marched down Fifth Avenue, and after the signal, they lit cigarettes.

Bernays notified the press that he had heard a group of activists were preparing to protest by lighting what they called “torches of freedom.”

As Pat Jackson, a PR advisor and a friend of Bernays, explains:

“He knew that all the photographers would be there to capture this moment, so he was ready with a phrase… torches of freedom.

Here you have a symbol, young women smoking a cigarette in public with a phrase that means anybody who believes in equality, pretty much has to support them in the ensuing debate about this.”

Everything was carefully scripted:

  • How should debutants look?
  • How would they behave?
  • Where would they go?

But most importantly, Bernays took steps to conceal that he and American Tobacco were behind this campaign. He hid that “torches of freedom” was just a promotion for Lucky Strikes.

Maybe this campaign is why brands try to link their product to a social cause.

Bernays Approach

In my opinion, a situation that fully captures Bernays’ approach is this:

A PR man advised George Hill to change the Lucky Strike package to a neutral color because surveys showed women do not prefer its green package.

They thought it crashed with their favorite clothing.

Hill didn’t like this strategy because they had spent millions advertising the package.

Then Bernays said, “If you don’t change the color of the package, change the color of fashion… to green.”

Imagine that. He was trying to change an entire nation’s taste of color. And he did, by the way.

Bernays’ approach was indirect. He created seemingly spontaneous events that generated news and linked to his clients’ products or ideas.

He didn’t slap facts on your face about buying a particular product.

He shaped your environment in a way that purchasing the product or taking a specific action felt reasonable That it was YOUR idea.

Third-Man Technique

On Jan 17, 1991, President George H. W. Bush announced the start of Operation Desert Storm. A war against Iraq in response to Iraq’s invasion and annexation of Kuwait.

Three months earlier, a 15-year-old nurse named Nayirah gave this emotional testimony before congress…

For three months, this testimony was repeated again and again by the media. Even the president himself mentioned the story.

This story shocked the US public and convinced them to take military action against Iraq.

The coalition of countries led by the US defeated Iraq within a month.

One year later, it was found that the story of Nayirah was fabricated. She was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the US.

Nijirah al-Sabah (left), the daughter of Kuwait’s ambassador to the United States Saud Nasir Al-Sabah

And the mastermind behind this campaign was the world’s largest PR firm, Hill & Knowlton.

The Kuwaiti government paid them $11 million.

Bernays, still working then, was not involved in this campaign.

But he must have recognized it for what it was because they were using his strategies:

1. Exploit their emotions – in this case, fear, anger, and disgust.

2. Create the narrative – Iraqi soldiers embody evil, and Kuwait, a young democratic country, needs help from the US and the world.

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3. Use the 15-year-old “nurse” to symbolize Kuwaiti’s struggle.

4. And the most crucial element is to create news.

As Bernays explained in his book:

“The public relations counsel must lift startling facts from his whole subject and present them as news. He must isolate ideas and develop them into events so that they can be more readily understood and so they can claim attention as news.”

– Crystalizing Public Opinion

What makes this step very effective is that most people think that the goal of media is to inform the public.

You might already know that it is not. Televisions and other mediums are businesses. Their primary goal is to make lots of money.

They can’t make that money by informing and educating people… but by entertaining them.

Related article: Why I Stopped Watching the News (And Why You Should Too)


Walter Lippmann was among the most influential journalists of the early 20th century.

After he graduated from Harvard, he helped found “The New Republic” magazine and was an advisor to President Woodrow Wilson.

In the 1930s, he became a syndicated columnist, where he won a broad audience and two Pulitzer Prizes. He wrote several well-respected books throughout his long career, but the most influential one was Public Opinion.

The central idea of his book was that the public mind needed to be understood and managed by an educated elite.

He presented two arguments that had a significant impact on the work of Edward Bernays.

The first argument was that public opinion consists of pictures in their head, and very often, these pictures mislead people in their dealings with the world outside. 

Living with daily problems and minimal access to facts, most people’s sense of reality is shaped by what he termed “pseudo-environments.”

“People form a mental image of events they do not experience and attach emotions to those images.

Casual facts combine with man’s creative imagination and his will to believe to create the fictions on which he acts.

The analyst of public opinion must thus begin by recognizing the triangular relationship between – the scene of action, the human picture of that scene, and the human response to that picture working itself out upon the scene of action”.

Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann

In other words, we create a model of our environment in our mind because it’s simpler for us to understand and act.

You and I watch the same event, but our perceptions might differ.

The reason is that we attach emotions to the event. Remember what we learned about the unconscious mind.

And we will behave based on that perception.

Human perception is a collection of:

  • Senses
  • Feelings we have about past experiences
  • Stereotypes
  • Symbols
  • Rationalizations
  • Fantasies

If you can understand your audience’s patterns of perception, you could engineer their “pseudo-environments”.

The second argument was about stereotypes.

Lippmann defined it as a “distorted picture or image in a person’s mind, not based on personal experience, but derived culturally.”

The pattern of stereotypes largely determines what group of facts we shall see and in what light we shall see them.

“For the most part, we do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see.

In the great blooming, buzzing confusion of the outer world, we pick out what our culture has already defined for us, and we tend to perceive that which we have picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture.”

      – Public Opinion (Page 81)

Bernays agreed with his argument and stated that the PR advisor creates new stereotypes.

And you can build these stereotypes based on understanding the fundamental instincts of the people you are trying to reach.

Now, let’s see how we can influence each element.

Information we get from the senses. It’s about figuring out what content your target audience is consuming and where… So you can craft a powerful message.

Feelings we have about past experiences. You might use a shocking event that happened in the past to make a point today. You tap into people’s negative emotions.

You can also use positive emotions. For example, coca-cola connects its product with the feeling of nostalgia.

Symbols. You take an idea and connect it to a symbol, something that makes sense to most people.

Rationalizations. People decide on emotion and justify with logic.

Fantasies. What are people’s wildest dreams, and how can you craft a story that promises to turn their fantasies into reality?

These elements give you an idea of how people perceive the world. It also allows you to go deeper into understanding how they really feel.

Because here’s the deal…

Politicians and corporations do not create feelings out of thin air.

They do all this work to amplify how we already feel.


Even in today’s world, where we have tremendous access to information, it is challenging to separate truths from lies.

I hope that by understanding how the propaganda machine works, you will reduce its damage to you to a certain degree.

You won’t be able to prevent morons from being elected, but you can prevent being manipulated by tobacco, liquor, and fast-food corporations.

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