While a plate of bacon and eggs is considered today to be the quintessential American breakfast, this wasn't always the case. In fact, as recently as the early Twenties, most people in the US kept their first meals of the day light. It wasn't until Edward Bernays set up shop as one of the world's first public relations professionals that this all changed.

As the nephew of legendary psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, Edward Bernays was in a perfect position to learn about the inner workings of the human mind. In his case, however, he lent his knowledge to purposes considerably less pure. Early in his career, Bernays worked as part of the Creel Committee-the propaganda agency responsible for selling World War I to the American public with phrases like "Make the World Safe For Democracy." He then turned his talents to the more lucrative private sector, drumming up attention (and buyers) for industries ranging from tobacco to food products.

It was in the latter category that Bernays had one of his most dramatic successes in a long career full of them. His client Beechnut was among the country's predominant producers of pork products. Understandably, their view was that people were simply not eating enough bacon, and they paid Bernays handsomely to remedy that. In service of this goal, Bernays contacted a doctor he knew (and who also had substantial financial ties to his agency) and commissioned a "study" on the health benefits of bacon. What the physician came back with was that bacon was, in fact, the perfect breakfast food in that it "replaces the energy you lose during sleep."

Once assured of these results, Bernays asked the doctor to communicate his findings to the medical community, which he did by distributing them to a list of five thousand MDs across the country. Within no time, doctors from coast to coast were recommending that their patients eat bacon for breakfast, and the eating habits of a nation were transformed.

Regardless of how you feel about the ethical implications of pushing packets of concentrated cholesterol on an unsuspecting public, there is a lot any business owner, consultant, or seller of ideas can learn from Edward Bernays's notorious promotional campaign.

For one, prestige matters a lot. If you can get prominent people with legitimate credentials, titles, or letters behind their names to speak favorably on your behalf, it is worth many times more than any self-serving advertising campaign could ever be.On the other hand, investing in activities designed to build a massive audience is overrated. It is usually far more worthwhile to get a smaller circle of prominent and influential people to spread your message for you. And above all, what Edward Bernays teaches us is that when it comes to spreading your message, the quality of your facts matter far less than the confidence and authority with which you present them.

To read an earlier installment of the Hype Men series, go here.

Published on: Apr 12, 2016
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