While you were growing up, you were told at some point that “breakfast was the most important meal of the day”. But for a new generation of millennials for whom intermittent fasting has become ubiquitous, the “hearty breakfast” now seems like a thing of myth and legend. If skipping breakfast is healthy, then why did people believe for so long that a large morning meal was absolutely necessary? And when did bacon and eggs become the classic American breakfast? The answer boils down to one company’s need to increase pork sales, one man’s relentless belief in the power of propaganda, and one public relations campaign that would change the dietary habits of an entire nation. This is the story of how the Beech-Nut Packing Company got Edward Bernays to convince Americans to buy, and eat, more bacon.
The Pork Problem
The Imperial Packing Company was founded in 1891 and sold ham and bacon, but they really started paying attention to marketing in the 1920s. In fact they changed their very name to Beech-Nut Packing Company because “Imperial” felt un-American and un-democratic. By this time, the company was producing a wide range of products, from bacon and other meat products to chewing gum, mints, peanut butter, jam and coffee. But even though the company had expanded into a range of different goods, they faced a big problem: people weren’t buying enough of their cornerstone product. Bacon.
While Americans may have eaten large breakfasts in the decade leading up to the 20th century, their economy and dietary behaviours had gradually changed as the country rapidly industrialized. Many people no longer relied on physical labour to make a living, and had started moving to cities and working in offices. Consequently, they started eating less in the mornings. You didn’t really need a big meal if you weren’t doing farm work for 8 hours a day. Coffee and toast became the staple breakfast, sometimes a doughnut or some orange juice as well. Beech-Nut had a big problem, and they needed a big idea to solve it. Enter Edward Louis Bernays.
Who was Edward Bernays?
Bernays, now known as “the father of public relations”, was a trailblazer in the field of propaganda and manipulating public perception. Born into a Jewish family in Austria, his family moved to the United States in the 1890s, where he graduated from Cornell University in 1912 and started working as a journalist and later became a press agent. He was the nephew of Sigmund Freud, and an early believer of his uncle’s psychoanalytic theory, which he began implementing into his public relation strategies, as well as drawing upon research into crowd psychology and the herd behaviour of humans in a group. A turning point in his career came when the US entered WW1 and he was recruited to the Committee on Public Information(CPI), a propaganda machine dedicated to influencing public opinion, both at home and abroad, into supporting the war effort.
The CPI primarily used the media to disseminate their messages, forming relationships with journalists and creating a vast quantity of newspaper releases and advertisements, as well as films, pamphlets, and posters. The CPI was disbanded in 1918, but by then Bernays realized that he didn’t need a war to weaponize propaganda.
There was one basic lesson I learned in the CPI—that efforts comparable to those applied by the CPI to affect the attitudes of the enemy, of neutrals, and people of this country could be applied with equal facility to peacetime pursuits. In other words, what could be done for a nation at war could be done for organizations and people in a nation at peace.
The Bacon Campaign
While the Beech-Nut Company sold a large variety of edible goods, bacon was one of it’s primary products and it wasn’t selling very well. The company approached Edward Bernays, confident that his expertise would help them solve this problem. During his time in the CPI, Bernays had learned that propaganda messaging was more effective when it came from influential figures, people who commanded respect from society. And in the case of food and nutrition, no one was more credible than a doctor.
So he had his agency’s doctor write to thousands of doctors around the country, asking them if they supported his opinion that a large breakfast was a healthy choice. Thousands wrote back that they agreed, and Bernays used this survey to pitch a headline that would run in newspapers across the country: “4,500 physicians urge Americans to eat heavy breakfasts to improve their health”. These articles also stated that physicians recommended bacon and eggs as the cornerstone of a healthy breakfast. This messaging was carried by major newspapers and magazines to millions of Americans, driving up sales of bacon like never before. The scale and impact of this campaign can still be felt today, and in 2020 consumer surveys showed that almost 270 million Americans consumed bacon. Bacon was here to stay.
The Legacy of Public Relations
After this major success, Edward Bernays would go on to expand on his strategies, creating massively successful campaigns that encouraged women to smoke cigarettes, promote disposable paper cups as the most hygienic option, helped the United Fruit Company popularize bananas and even worked on improving the public image of US President Calvin Coolidge. But despite the success of his methods in the commercial space, Bernays’ tactics were quickly recognized for their efficacy by political organizations. Joseph Goebbels, the chief Nazi propagandist, admired Bernays and even tried to hire him. When he learned that the Nazis were using his methods to demonize Jews and other minorities in Germany, he was greatly disturbed.
They were using my books as the basis for a destructive campaign against the Jews of Germany. This shocked me, but I knew any human activity can be used for social purposes or misused for antisocial ones.
The effects and legacy of his work live on, and have been both used and as well as misused to great extent by corporations and governments all over the world. But hey. At least we got bacon.