Essay

The Power of Persuasion

How Edward Bernays's 1923 book, Crystalizing Public Opinion, still influences today's hyperconnected modern age.

The Power of Persuasion

We may be quicker at receiving information — one flick of a radio wave and we know what’s happened across the globe. And we may be niftier in our communication techniques — trimming a thought to 140 characters is quite the talent. But when it comes to the power of mass persuasion, we’re still living in the ’20s.

Dubbed the father of public relations, Edward Bernays mapped out what have become the primary public relations strategies practiced on a global scale. And he did it by tapping into the universal nature of humankind. Ever watched a Coca-Cola ad, then found yourself sharing one with a friend? Or changed your vote based on a televised political campaign? That’s the work of Bernays, which he divulges in Crystalizing Public Opinion. Read on to learn how a book published in 1923 is still influencing how we live today.


Have you ever read an article, seen a movie, or read a book because someone you follow on Twitter mentioned it? Bernays was one of the first public figures to understanding the importance of social influencers in mass persuasion. Recognizing our tendency to follow the herd and put trust in a group leader, Bernays saw that forming an alliance with a group leader could be a powerful vehicle for influencing a large group in favor of a client.

“The gregarious instinct in man gives the public relations counsel the opportunity for his most potent work,” he said. “… A group leader of any given cause will bring to a new cause all those who have looked to his leadership.”

Have you ever snacked on rice cakes because you heard gluten was bad for you? Bernays saw that the human instinct for self-preservation is one of the easiest traits to manipulate. Self-preservation includes the desire for shelter, sex, food, and health, and most advertising appeals in some way to this instinct.

Bernays gives the example of how a raisin company changed its advertising following the advice of its press agent:

“The dispensers of raisins, upon the advice of an expert on public opinion, adopted a slogan to appeal to this instinct: ‘Have you had your iron today?’ Iron presumably strengthening a man and increasing his powers of resistance. The same man appealed to here will respond to the sales talk, which persuades him that insurance may save him at a time of need.”

Have you bought extra moves in Candy Crush in order to beat your friend’s high score on Facebook? Understanding human need to be recognized for their actions, Bernays utilized the self-display-elation motive to give people a greater interest in a cause or product.

“It is often found to be true that when a man’s adherence or allegiance to a movement is lukewarm and he is publicly praised for his adherence to it, he will become a forceful factor in it. ”

This is why museum wings are named after their donors, why brands run contests and why gamers continue to unlock new “achievements” as they make their way through the latest Xbox game.

Obama-newspapers

Will articles you read in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or USA Today influence who you vote for in 2016? Understanding the value of the daily newspaper in providing the public with up-to-the-minute news, Bernays saw it was essential for the public relations counsel to have a seamless relationship with journalists. It became a press agent’s job to help journalists extract a good story from a mass of facts.

“He is not merely the purveyor of news. He is more logically the creator of news.”

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