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The Father of Market Research

Via AMA : In Freud and the Intriguing History of Focus Groups, I detailed the life and influence of Ernest Dichter—a patriarch of qualitative research and chief father of the focus group. As the title of the article indicated, Dichter was greatly informed by Sigmund Freud; and that shaped many modern notions of market research.

There is another figure who arguably towers over Dichter when it comes to market research. He was more than an acolyte of Freud, but his actual his nephew. He is often called the father of public relations, market psychology, and even propaganda. His ideas not only shaped contemporary marketing and advertising, they were used to topple governments.

His name was Edward Bernays. Life magazine named him one of the most influential Americans of the century. He advised American presidents, magnates like William Randolph Hearst, and lauded corporations on the psychology of consumers and use of mass media to direct them. In fact, many of the (so-called) cutting edge techniques of digital and inbound marketing can be traced to Bernays.

Just as important, as Margherita Giannel wrote in A Bright Mind In The Right Moment, Bernays was the first in history to promote that “market research was fundamental to understand why and how consumers chose to buy a certain good.” Many purists consider Charles Coolidge Parlin​ the father of market research. But it was Bernays’ who truly combined qualitative and quantitative research in a way that transformed market research forever.

First, a brief history

Bernays was born in Vienna in 1891, moved to the U.S. the following year, received an American education, and eventually entered the journalism field as an adult. His first break came while working for the Woodrow Wilson administration, in the Committee on Public Information. He was a key orchestrator in getting the U.S. into World Word I. His success came by marketing the idea of “bringing democracy” to foreign countries, a notion the government has utilized even recently.

After the war, Bernays honed the skill of public relations, opening his firm in New York in 1919. He perfected the idea of the private sector press release, among many other innovations. He worked for various major entities like Lucky Strike, General Motors, Procter & Gamble, and the Aluminum Company of America (he is the reason American water contains fluoride).

Like Dichter, Bernays employed Freud’s psychology theories (even asking his uncle for advice), in effect establishing the basis for qualitative research. Unlike Dichter, though, he saw people not as oceans of unconscious desires needing to be tapped, but as chaotic beasts that ought to be manipulated for the greater good (offered by governments and businesses, of course). He called this notion “engineering of consent.”

Before shrugging all of this as outdated history, here are some of the ideas of Bernays that are still relevant today (even if they wear new terminology):

Influencers or Thought Leaders

Modern marketing demands an expert in the field not only to promote a product but grant gravitas to a company. Every CEO or department head seems to have a blog or active social media account or webinar appearance. Their ideas are curated for different agendas, even by competitors in the industry. This is almost standard today.

This phenomena originated with Bernays, and one could add the celebrity or expert endorsement as well. He called this marketing tactic “third party authorities” that promoted his clients’ causes.

“If you can influence the leaders, either with or without their conscious cooperation, you automatically influence the group which they sway,” he once said.

The greatest example of this is how Bernays was able to increase the sales of bacon​. While researching for the Beech-Nut Packing Company, he found an empty space in American’s diets: their light breakfasts, which in those days was not much more than a roll and juice.

Bernays’ was able to obtain the opinions of more than 4,500 physicians endorsing the idea that a heavier breakfast awarded more energy for the day. Not trusting the public to accept these findings, Bernays flooded the market with manipulated press releases, articles, and advertisements—with the message that doctors personally ate large breakfasts or that bacon and eggs were part of that “nutritious breakfast.”

Sales of bacon went through the roof, and Bernays confessed later in life he was surprised consumers fell for such a stunt.


This marketing practice still very prevalent, especially on the internet and its A/B testing frenzy—where colors, graphics, and even fonts are tested and used to tie a brand to a desired emotion. Bernays actually called this idea the “tie in.” He (and the rest of us marketers) owe this as much to Pavlov and his dogs as to Freud (and Bernays admitted this).

His most notorious campaign on Association was his ability to make smoking popular with women, during a campaign for the American Tobacco Association in the 1920s. In those days, women smoking was taboo, even illegal in some parts of the country. Bernays, through public events and media exploitation, was able to connect the distasteful idea of women smoking with the nascent feminist movement. Put simply: the “tie in” was that being against women smoking was being against women’s rights. By the 1930s, women smoking wasn’t just accepted but became a symbol of American freedom.

(It should be noted that, like Dichter, who also worked for cigarettes companies, Bernays would repent later in life and join antismoking lobbyists).

Content Marketing/Inbound Marketing

Any company today assumes that marketing must be conducted in as many mediums as possible, regardless of the size of the company. Even just a few decades ago, large companies were judicious about the amount of media channels they delved in.

Bernays was the first to advocate multi-channel marketing of any brand he worked for, and with a content that was tailored to each medium (as he did with the bacon campaign). As one marketing psychologist wrote​: before Bernays, marketing and advertising were a direct one-on-one affair. Bernays maintained that a product needed to be ubiquitous in some avatar or another, whether it was a promotional newspaper article, billboard, press release, or radio commercial.

Today’s much lauded “sales funnel” and “buyer’s journey” were a normal part of Bernays’ strategies almost 80 years ago.

The Dark Side of His Marketing

Bernays led a successful career, but his ideas were considered incendiary to many in the industry, especially his attitude that the masses were chattel with little free will. One biographer​ even explains that Bernays (a Jew) was dismayed when he discovered that Joseph Goebbels, one of Hitler’s most esteemed butchers, leveraged one of his books as a resource on how to manipulate the German population.

Furthermore, his uncle was reported to have been disappointed in Bernays tactics. Freud believed in psychoanalysis for the betterment of the individual, not psychoanalysis for the betterment of government and businesses.

Bernays is also directly cited as the reason the Guatemala government was overthrown in 1954, while he worked for the CIA and Chiquita (and we get the term “banana republic”). This was all part of Bernays prepackaged “communism is bad” public relations campaign that the U.S. government had used before and certainly after the Guatemala incident.

Yet Bernays certainly laid the major foundation for marketing psychology. Like I said with Dichter, his qualitative approach is going through a renaissance as more information on consumers is more available than ever. Bernays died in 1995, just missing the Internet Age with its vast domains of consumer and business psychology—all meeting in a cyber banana republic he would enjoy biasing.​

Miguel Conner
Marketing Director for qSample, a research and data collection firm in Chicago. Author of several fiction and nonfiction books, and interested in market research from a historical and qualitative aspect.

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