- This is the man responsible for you spending all your money in the Zara sale.
Once upon a time (in 1918, to be specific), there was a man called Edward Bernays. Bernays was an abject propagandist, an American and the nephew of Sigmund Freud. He is also probably the sole reason that consumers think the way that they do. Without him, the world would be a totally different place.
He was, in short, the guy who invented PR.
Bernays was the man who created consumer culture in its embryonic form. Before him, people bought clothes – as well as almost everything else – because of their durability and the need of the consumer. It’s very cold? Buy a coat. Don’t bother buying two, the one black wool will do for every occasion.
How did he successfully change the crowd mindset from buying as you need to the kind of thinking that makes bi-weekly vajazzles a not-entirely-ludicrous part of a grooming routine?
Easy. He tricked us.
During World War One, Bernays was part of a team that created a highly successful propaganda campaign for the American War effort. This led him to thinking about how to apply that kind of thinking towards things that don’t kill you immediately, like cars and cigarettes. And clothes, of course.
He set up an office in New York. Not being totally into the idea of calling himself a propagandist, he called himself a public relations officer. And so, history begins.
Bernays used the theories of his uncle Sigmund to shape the mindset of a crowd, irrationally linking objects to people’s deepest desires and feelings. Why? Because people are stupid, and we can be incredibly easily led.
Before Bernays, women didn’t smoke in public. It was taboo as, according to uncle Siggy, the cigarette is like a penis, and good girls don’t go puffing on dicks in public – or at least they didn’t back then. Bernays paid a group of women to smoke at a parade, calling cigarettes ‘torches of freedom’. From then on, cigarettes, basically just cancer in a tube, became a symbol of female emancipation. Women started puffing en masse.
It’s the same with clothes. Clothing, through celebrity endorsements and appealing to the subconscious instincts of the consumer, buying clothes became an expression of your innermost self, your personality, your mood and feelings, instead of something warm to horse onto yourself before stepping out into the bitter cold.
No Bernays; no ASOS, no highstreet culture, no fashion columnists. Without Bernays, I might easily be out ploughing fields or writing my fiftieth column on why a good sturdy pair of brogues are best for walking out in the muck.
In a way, the Bernays approach has eaten itself. While people still buy clothes they don’t strictly need, the psychology of clothes has become a very real thing. People do indeed express themselves through clothes. What you wear does say things about you that you might not particularly want to express at any given time. The subconsious expression of the self has much more to do with what you wear now than it did back in 1918. But then, I think Bernays might have something to say about that.