The scientific application of propaganda for the shaping of public opinion didn’t begin under European despots like Stalin or Mussolini. It began with a lone American press agent named Edward Bernays, the Vienna-born nephew of Sigmund Freud.
Like his famous psychologist-uncle, Bernays made a study of human behavior—and how to profit from it. Bernays was whipping up publicity for opera star Enrico Caruso’s U.S. tour when President Wilson hired him to help “sell” Americans on entering the far-off war in Europe. Building an ad campaign around slogans like “the war to end all wars,” Bernays achieved great success. In 1923 he published his seminal work on harnessing mass psychology. It was titled “Crystallizing Public Opinion.”
In 1924, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was founded amid a flurry of negative publicity about the studio’s floundering production of “Ben-Hur” in Italy. MGM contracted with a prime disciple of Edward Bernays and sent him to Rome. It was a timely move, for the new public relations outfit was in place that October when disaster struck.
News reporters were quickly diverted away from what was another potential embarrassment for the Mussolini government, as well as the single greatest catastrophe in Hollywood history.
That story, taken largely from eyewitness accounts, is told for the first time in my historical novel “Cast Aside: With Bushman at the Unmaking of ‘Ben-Hur’ in Italy,” coming soon from BearManor Media Books.