Column: Death of a Salesman

By Gus Bode

I hate to start my column for the second week in a row with a celebrity death, but I still am mourning the loss of one great American this Fourth of July weekend. This man embodied Americana and shouted us into a world where blankets are clothes and mops are shoes. I’m talking of course about Billy Mays.

Anyone who has watched the show ‘Pitchman’ or suffered through insomniac television is familiar with the bearded carnival barker screaming, ‘But wait, there’s more.’ Although millions of dollars went into producing and researching his infomercials, there was an undeniable, old school appeal to the way Mays sold stuff. He was just good at it.

Americans are exposed to hundreds of advertisements a day. From urologists billboards to Google ads, our senses are bombarded with sounds and images designed to entice us into spending money. But how did our society and culture end up so awash in marketing? It was probably an inevitable byproduct of industrial consumer capitalism, but the historical story begins with one man, Edward Bernays.


Many of you have probably never heard of Bernays. Yet his work has impacted and shaped you more than almost any dead philosopher or president. His work paved the way for rocks to become ‘pets’ and coal to become ‘clean.’ He is the father of public relations.

Bernays was born in the late 1800s and grew up during an era of rapid change in American society. The country was changing from a nation of small farmers in small towns to a nation of factory workers in cities. Technological advances from the light bulb to the automobile changed society and human interaction overnight. Advances in printing and radio too allowed for a previously unprecedented level of mass communication.

Selling things was nothing new. People had been doing that since the dawn of civilization. But when the new freedoms and luxuries that technology provided combined with the new tools of mass communication, suddenly a light bulb went off in some people’s heads. What used to be sold locally could now be sold to the entire populace.’ The previous limits to consumerism were now gone.

This is where Bernays comes in.’ He pioneered the use of science in marketing.’ The nephew of Sigmund Freud used his uncle’s theories on human behavior and coupled it with new science on group dynamics to birth the monster that is public relations.’ Bernays is responsible for changing the dynamic from people buying what they need to people buying what they are told they need. What resulted from that subtle change is probably the largest societal change in the past 400 years as well as the creation of the most dangerous and easily abused things that humans have ever discovered about themselves, marketing.

Bernays himself knew it isn’t what you sell, it’s how you sell it. He cut his teeth by convincing Americans that healthy people eat bacon for breakfast. He is the reason so many of us eat (delicious) sliced pork ass in the morning.

Politicians eventually realized that they too were essentially marketing a product, and the techniques he pioneered are still used today. Nazis, Peta, and the American Marketing Association all have one thing in common: They all use propaganda, something you can thank Bernays for.

If it wasn’t Bernays who ushered in our modern era of advertisements, it would have been someone else. But still, I can’t help but blame him for the evils of marketing.’


Is marketing inherently evil? Maybe, maybe not, but today it is a (evil) necessity.’ Even good products can’t succeed without good marketing. But still in an era where advertisers are specifically targeting consumers based on the plethora of personal and demographic information of their Facebook page (I do want to meet sexy singles who dress up as superheroes!) let us have an ironic moment of silence for the Old School King.

Bye now Mays, Bye now.

Andrew O’Connor is a junior studying

political science and philosophy.