Review the following list of twelve of the most influential businesspeople in recent history. Is there any name you’re not familiar with?

  • Bill Gates
  • Oprah Winfrey
  • John D. Rockefeller
  • Henry Ford
  • Mark Zuckerberg
  • Walt Disney
  • Coco Chanel
  • Thomas Edison
  • Warren Bu!et
  • Edward Bernays
  • Steve Jobs
  • J.P. Morgan

The odds are fairly good that Edward Bernays is the only unfamiliar name. Who is he, and why is he included? The answer tells us something about how marketing and advertising reached such a sophisticated level of influence.

The father of spin

The idea that we purchase products to fulfill our desires and that our buying decisions are based on emotions rather than logic is certainly not new. While several versions of how this evolved exist, they all involve Bernays, an Austrian-born immigrant to America, who is considered one of the most influential minds of the last century.

Bernays, who is known as “the father of public relations” and “the father of spin,” pioneered public relations. He provided the foundation for emotional selling and marketing and influenced much of the twentieth century’s economic and political thought.

In the mid-1920s, the Beech-Nut Packing Company saw its revenue from bacon sales lagging and turned to Bernays for help. Before Bernays, the assumption was that people used logic to make decisions. Bernays, however, was influenced by his uncle Sigmund Freud, who believed that people are more motivated by emotion.

Thus, Bernays understood that much of human behavior is driven by instinct and unconscious desires. As a result, he believed that appealing to the public’s emotions would result in greater sales than promoting the dependability and reliability of a product.

bacon and emotional buying

Bringing home the bacon

To sell more bacon, Bernays decided to create an emotional appeal for a heartier breakfast that included bacon. In the mid-1920s, the ideal American breakfast was toast, juice, and coffee. To change people’s thinking, he asked over 4,500 physicians whether they thought a “light” or a “hearty” breakfast was healthiest. The physicians overwhelmingly chose the hearty breakfast. Bernays’ idea of a hearty breakfast included bacon and eggs, so he used this definition when he released the findings of his study.

The news made headlines and within a short time, bacon and eggs became America’s breakfast. Beech-Nut Packing enjoyed a significant increase in bacon sales, and breakfast was redefined. Bacon and eggs, or some variation remains, by far, America’s best-selling breakfast. This includes McDonald’s McMuffin.

Bernays’ contribution remains incredibly powerful. The idea that what we buy is driven by emotion is how products or services are marketed, branded, and sold today. Automobiles sales play on motivating the buyer’s desire for freedom, luxury, pride, and appearance. Clothing and accessories are marketed to reflect sexual prowess, attractiveness, and status. Food marketers promote physical wellbeing, goodness, and, for “foodies,” feeling “in” on the latest trend.

Bernays’ ideas have been advanced, expanded on, and fine-tuned, and emotional selling is still with us. Whenever you hear “doctors recommend” or “more dentists recommend,” you have Eddie Bernays to thank.



Edgar Papke is the co-author of Innovation By Design and author of True Alignment and The Elephant In The Boardroom. He helps leaders and their organizations align to create greater levels of innovation, performance, and fulfillment. He can be reached by email: