Freud’s American Nephew: Edward Bernays and the Selling of Psychoanalysis

Sigmund Freud’s relationship with his nephew, the Austrian-American public relations consultant Edward Bernays, was significant but not that of a mentor and his protégé. Because Bernays became known as an expert in the uses of propaganda, however, many biographers, critics, and other observers have concluded that Bernays masterfully applied Freud’s theories of the unconscious to manipulate the masses and undermine democracy. Freud biographer Élisabeth Roudinesco notes that Bernays “relied on Freudian concepts” in his publicity campaigns. Bernays’s biographer, Larry Tye, says that his subject was “taken with the doctor’s novel theories” and determined to exploit unconscious passions and desires to “shape the behavior of the masses.” The conspiracy-minded filmmaker Adam Curtis took the notion further in his 2002 documentary, "The Century of the Self," which dramatized Bernays’s purported application of Freudian techniques for powerful corporate clients toward the project of mass control. For the media scholar Stuart Ewen, Bernays’s methods denied humans’ capacity for reason and ultimately amounted to a “repudiation of the principal of participatory democracy.” Contrary to the myth, this paper explores the real ways in which Bernays worked to publicize Freud’s works and popularize psychoanalysis on the American scene. Bernays himself is responsible for much of the mythologizing, because he did nothing to dispel the many highly suggestive reports about his relationship with his famous uncle—a biographical detail that was noted in virtually every article about him in both the trade journals and the popular press. Based on research in the Bernays papers at the Library of Congress, including a lengthy correspondence between Bernays and Freud, this paper argues that Bernays was truly skilled not in psychoanalysis but in publicity tactics, and he knew what worked to garner press attention and promote a business, an idea, a cause, or, in the case his own business—himself.