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June 25, 2020 4:47 am

Jews in Advertising and Public Relations

avatar by Harold Brackman


New Year’s Eve in Times Square. Photo: Wikipedia.

What’s the difference between advertising and public relations? Advertising has a boulevard — Madison Avenue — named after it! But both professions reflect the decisive influence of American Jews.

As historian Daniel Pope showed, the advertising industry originally was a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant preserve at a time when Bruce Barton depicted Jesus as the first advertising man.

Jews’ entry into advertising took off with major Jewish department stores as clients. The first high-profile Jewish adman was Albert D. Lasker. Born into a well-to-do German-Jewish family in Texas, he used radio soap operas to advertise, believing his mission was to “homogenize” the country’s new immigrants. Not religious, he nevertheless supported Leo Frank’s defense before he was lynched by white supremacists and racists in Georgia, as well as Zionism.

A child of Russian Jewish immigrants, William Bernbach of Doyle Dane Bernbach reflected the changes in advertising and the American scene after World War II. Declining antisemitism facilitated Jews entering the profession. Bernbach specialized in creative ad campaigns using irony, humor, and a new tolerance for diversity. Examples of innovative ads included “you don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s” rye bread. Bernbach personified both an “ethnic revolution” and a “creative revolution” in advertising.

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As Larry Tye demonstrated, public relations bore an early Jewish imprint. A non-Jew, Ivy Lee, the first PR man for Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, competed for the title of “father of public relations” with Edward L. Bernays. Bernays was born into an Austrian Jewish immigrant family in New York. He was a “double nephew” of Sigmund Freud (his mother was Freud’s sister, his father’s sister married Freud), and even served as Freud’s American publicist.

Starting as a press agent, Bernays “propagandized” — a term he popularized — for America’s cause through World War I’s Committee on Public Information. During the 1920s, he authored pioneering books defining modern public relations. He relied on Freud and other theorists who viewed the challenge of the modern age as molding the irrational, volatile impulses of “the herd mind.”

In contrast to ads selling “products,” Bernays emphasized that public relations professionals should “engineer consent” by “pull[ing] the wires which control the public mind” in order to shape consumer (and voter) attitudes.

Bernays’ great grandfather was the Chief Rabbi of Hamburg; his father joined Rabbi Stephen Wise’s Free Synagogue. Bernays instead shared Freud’s disdain for organized Judaism. Despite this, his liberalism and that of his feminist wife and partner, Doris Fleischman, translated into support for Jewish welfare and refugee organizations and for rescue efforts during the Holocaust, as well as friendships with Israeli leaders. He also backed the NAACP.

Bernays became a legendarily successful PR man with clients ranging from General Electric to American Tobacco to United Fruit. He didn’t allow his liberal politics to interfere with promoting his clients. He orchestrated American Tobacco’s campaign to convince women that cigarettes were feminist “Torches of Liberty” despite knowing of nicotine’s deleterious effects. Later, he masterminded United Fruit’s “psychological warfare” campaign preparing American public opinion for the CIA’s overthrow of Guatemala’s allegedly communist Arbenz regime. When he learned that Joseph Goebbels admired his theories about using propaganda, Bernays protested that “there wasn’t a damned thing I could do about it.” But unlike his rival Ivy Lee, Bernays refused to work for the Nazis.

During the 20th century, Jewish innovators like Bernbach and Bernays transformed both advertising and public relations for good and ill.

Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).

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