We are constantly bombarded with marketing, even when we don’t realize it. But in America, the land of opportunity, there is always the opportunity for a sale, and the techniques used to sell us are sometimes so subtle that they influence what we believe to be common knowledge and conventional wisdom.
This is the Forgotten History of the Most Important Meal of the Day.
Edward Bernays was a genius. An evil genius to some, but a genius nonetheless. A nephew of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, Edward was from a young age fascinated with how the mind worked—specifically, how it could be influenced.
He gravitated toward journalism with an eye toward not informing, but rather persuading the masses. After college, he took a job as editor of a pair of medical publications and wrote articles urging people to shower regularly—something that wasn’t common at the time—and for women to ditch their corsets because of the damage they did to their bodies.
He was forward-thinking, and always thinking of the next way he could persuade the public. He promoted an English translation of a French play that dealt with prostitution and sexually transmitted diseases and was shunned by polite society, but Edward fought for its performance in America because he was convinced it could teach people to practice safer sex.
When the United States entered the Great War, Edward enlisted—but not to go to the front, but into the minds of a skeptical public to convince them that America needed to fight this fight and that they needed to support it.
Edward called this new style of public relations “psychological warfare”—a literal battle fought not with bullets, but with persuasion.
As he later wrote in a book he appropriately titled “Propaganda,” “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”
As chilling as this sounded, it was accurate, and Edward knew it. But he wasn’t content to simply sell Americans on war and peace. He wanted to change their lives…and, of course, make some money in the process.
When the war ended, he became a political consultant and publicity agent. He worked with President Calvin Coolidge and for Dixie Cups, launching a campaign to convince the public that only disposable cups were sanitary. One of his most notorious campaigns was to convince women that it was healthy to smoke cigarettes.
When he started working for the American Tobacco Company, its Lucky Strike brand was hurting. Women, it seemed, didn’t want to smoke as they considered it to be unhygienic and unladlylike. Edward got to work, launching a campaign to convince them that smoking instead of eating would help them lose weight. He even enlisted doctors to promote the idea that cigarettes were a much healthier alternative to dessert, and in so doing he started the popular tradition of the after-dinner cigarette for women while men retired to the study for cigars.
The Beech-Nut Packing Company took notice and hired Edward to do for its bacon sales what he had done for Lucky Strike sales. He got to work immediately, again using his extensive knowledge of human psychology and willingness to manipulate medical opinion to sell people on a product.
He noticed that most people didn’t eat a big meal at breakfast; if they ate anything at all. Most people, he realized, only drank a cup or two of coffee and had a bowl of cereal or maybe a piece of fruit. So he wrote to a doctor and asked if eating a bigger breakfast would be healthier. The doctor wrote back and said it would.
Then Edward wrote to 5,000 more doctors and asked them the same thing. He never asked if eating bacon was healthier, just if eating more than a quick snack was. More than 4,500 doctors wrote back and Edward had all the ammunition he needed for his latest psychological war.
But instead of advertisements, he pitched news stories on his discovery. Newspaper headlines blared: “4,500 physicians urge Americans to eat heavy breakfasts to improve their health.” Even though those doctors never once mentioned it, Edward told reporters that eggs with a side of bacon was the perfect heavy and thus healthy breakfast.
Bacon sales exploded almost overnight with a health-conscious American public flocking to stores and restaurants to follow doctors’ orders. Restaurants themselves opened up earlier and earlier to meet this sudden demand.
Over the years, the mantra Edward pushed became conventional wisdom without the public ever realizing that it was a marketing slogan: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.