Bernays’ Familiar Quotations
By Patrick F. Cannon
As a former public relations guy, I’m always on the lookout for items that remind me of the good old days, and of the tried and true language that endures.
In Monday’s Chicago Tribune, there was an item about someone named Lizzo. Now I don’t have a clue who this might be, but I certainly recognized the stock phrases that described an upcoming HBO “documentary” about her. We can all look forward to a thus far untitled project that “shares the inspirational story behind her humble beginnings to her meteoric rise with an intimate look into the moments that shaped her hard-earned rise to fame, success, love and international stardom…”
Nice ring to it. The same ring that has rung on many other occasions, for many other entertainers, some of whom no doubt are still well known. In this digital age, it joins many other stock phrases in the computer storages of entertainment PR firms from coast to coast (but mostly in LA).
Now, this isn’t a direct quote, but I’m sure you’ve read or heard something very much like the following, usually from some actor or other show-biz biggie: “I am extremely sorry if anything I said or did caused (insert woman’s or women’s names) any discomfort. I realize now that I crossed the line. I can only say I’ve learned a valuable lesson and won’t let anything like this ever happen again.”
Have you ever noticed how similar these public expressions of remorse are? In almost every case, they are released not by the offender, but by his (or rarely her) public relations consultant (in the old days, “press agent). They rather remind me of a prayer that used to be recited at the Roman Catholic mass. Here is a current version:
I confess to almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters,
that I have greatly sinned in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done and in what I have failed to do;
through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault;
therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin, all the Angels and Saints’
and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.
When I was a young lad, when you got to the “through my fault” part, you pounded your breast three times to further emphasize your guilt. When you confessed your sins to a priest, you promised, in the privacy of the Confessional, to sin no more. No privacy now. You must be seen (and heard) to publicly beat your breast.
If it doesn’t already exist, someone should publish a collection of useful and interchangeable paragraphs that cover the needs of any public figure. You know, kind of a Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations for the poor PR practitioner (which they like to call themselves instead of “flack”). It could be broken down into sections like Poverty-stricken Childhood, Sexual Mis-steps, Charitable Gestures, and Marriage Breakups. Under the last, we would find that classic – “We will always remain friends and put the interests of the children first!”
P.S. In case you haven’t heard of him, Edward Bernays is considered the “Father” of modern public relations, for better or worse. Look him up; an interesting character.
Copyright 2022, Patrick F. Cannon
3 thoughts on “Bernays’ Familiar Quotations”
How to influence people without the bother of making friends.
Bernays wasn’t Catholic but he should have recited an Act of Contrition or two.
A weekend with Bernays would have you believing science is “real”, abortion is women’s health care, carbon dioxide kills polar bears, GMOs are unsafe, Bernie Sanders is sincere (and not a delusional crank), Covid came from bat soup, Trump colluded with Russians, Clarence Thomas is a white supremacist, and monkey pox is the next pandemic.
Politicians and corporations have been partying at his place for decades. We hardly know what to believe anymore, thanks in part to him and his uncle Sigmund. If Marx considered the masses — the lumpenproletariat — social scum, Bernays simply thought they were endlessly malleable, a concept that seems to have special appeal to the media.
As consultant to the American Tobacco Company in the 1920s, he convinced women that smoking represented liberation, and sold the idea as a substitute for eating (he didn’t want his own wife to smoke). He no doubt was the inspiration for Virginia Slims (this was before Krispy Kremes).
A tireless self-promoter, he never achieved lasting fame, or infamy. Maybe it was the Thomas Dewey/car salesman mustache. But he did feed the willingness of people to say anything true or not — especially half-true — to make a buck or gain power. His tagline should be, in a loose paraphrase of George Costanza, “It isn’t hokum if enough people believe it.” It’s not lying, it’s advertising!
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I told you he was interesting. I think the mustache was what killed Dewey!
I think Taft was the last president to sport a mustache. They seemed to work for 1970s porn stars though!
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