In the 1920’s, there lived a man named Edward Bernays.
Edward was the nephew of psychologist Sigmund Freud, and became a marketing genius, before corporate marketing was really a thing.
At the time, Bernays’ PR firm was working for a major pork and bacon manufacturer named Beech Nut Packaging.
Bacon wasn’t really a thing back then. It was mostly a scrap meat for peasants. Bacon cheeseburgers didn’t exist, neither did BLT sandwiches, certainly not bacon and eggs. In fact, Beech Nut’s dilemma at the time was how to push bacon into the mainstream as an everyday product. Nobody was really eating it.
Edward Bernays wasn’t new to these dilemmas. This was the same man who convinced the American public that glass cups were unsanitary and people should use paper cups instead. The company that paid him to do that was Dixie Cup, the country’s major paper cup manufacturer.
So Bernays worked his magic. He asked his company’s internal doctor (who was on his payroll, so no conflict of interest, of course) if he would be willing to state publicly that a big breakfast was better than a small breakfast.
At the time Americans often didn’t eat anything for breakfast, usually just coffee or orange juice, maybe a bread roll.
The doctor said of course. Big breakfasts will be great for people.
Bernays then asked if he would be willing to ask 5,000 of his “doctor friends” if they would co-sign his opinion that big breakfasts were better than small breakfasts.
Most of them said yes.
That was all Bernays needed. The advertisements were put together, and a marketing campaign went out in the country’s national newspapers.
4,500 doctors agree that you should eat a big breakfast every morning!
Right beside these words was a delicious looking picture of bacon and eggs.
It was one of the best marketing campaigns of all time. Bacon sales for Beech Nut Packaging soared. Bacon became a household favourite. The classic American breakfast they called it. Suddenly everyone was eating bacon and eggs when they woke up, to be healthy, to get charged for the day.
One hundred years later, every diner in America still serves bacon and eggs for breakfast.
What’s the moral of this story?
I’m sure you’ve figured it out already. But let me tell you another story.
Last week, I started a fast. I haven’t eaten any food for nine days, and I feel fine.
Actually, I worked 7-8 hours today, did 150 push ups, 100 squats, some kettlebell work, drank a litre of green juice. I don’t just feel fine, I feel awesome. I could do another nine days, no problem at all.
Now, if you went and asked people on the street what would happen if they didn’t eat for nine days, they’d probably say they’d be in hospital, they’d have shrivelled up, some might even say they’d be dead.
Yet, here I am. Definitely not dead. It’s 3:25 a.m. and I’m wide awake. Not hungry at all.
How is it possible that I haven’t eaten any food for nine days and feel fine?
Most of us know we need to eat three meals a day. That’s common knowledge. Our brains won’t work otherwise. The world is even designed around that. Lunch menu, dinner menu. Breakfast served until 10. Should be a big breakfast too. Bacon and eggs maybe.
With us needing to eat so often, surely nobody could go a day without food, right?
Nine days? Impossible.
We should do a study.
Well, I am the study. I’m doing it right now.
Now we might think, okay fine, we got tricked into eating bacon and eggs. But it goes deeper. Most of us don’t realise how much influence people like Edward Bernays have on our lives. There are Edward Bernayses all around us. And every day they influence our decisions, they influence our bank accounts. Most importantly, they influence our happiness.
About two years ago, I read a book.
It was a marketing bible by Mister Rob Cialdini. In it, he taught the psychology of selling. How to recognise when you were being sold to, how to recognise when somebody was trying to influence you.
He explained why somebody could say something and you’d ignore them, but another person could add just three specific words and you would instantly take out your credit card. He talked about the one sentence a salesman could say to double your likelihood of buying a car. He examined how Buddhist monks at the airport were able to collect thousands in donations every day, just by using a flower.
Most importantly, he explained how to overcome this, how we could turn these persuasion tactics around and make them work for us instead.
After reading that book, I started to take notice of these things in my everyday life. I started to see that as soon as you step outside your door, you are being sold to, 24 hours a day. Everywhere you go, every interaction you have, somebody is influencing you to spend. Maybe you see a businessman wearing a watch, it sparkles. Suddenly you want one, because you grew up watching ads that made sparkly things look cool. You see a guy wearing sunglasses, he looks confident. A billboard you saw last year pops into your head. Confidence is everything. Suddenly you want those sunglasses too.
It was eye-opening.
I started to enjoy getting sold to. I enjoyed deciphering it, watching what emotions people could pull out of me.
One day, I went to OPSM for a “free eye test”. As soon as I got in the room, I got sold a not-free eye test, twice.
That machine will let me do a more complete test, she told me.
So you’re saying this machine will do an incomplete test? I asked.
Well, no. This test is still good. But that one’s … better …
On my way out, the lady at the desk asked if I’d like to look at some sunglasses. We’ve got the new model of those ones, she said, pointing to the ones in my hand. Come take a look.
These ones are still working fine, I said to her.
Good time for an upgrade! These are actually on sale, they’ve been very popular. Try them on? No obligation of course…
I started reading more books, like Made to Stick by the Heath brothers, which again taught how advertisements draw emotions out of you, stick to you, I read Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, to try and understand our instincts, why we make sudden decisions to like something or want something.
Money wasn’t a mystery anymore. I could see why everyone was broke all the time. Because every moment of the day, someone is selling you something useless. Watches. Sunglasses. Bacon. And eventually, you buy it.
They say every time you do a long fast, you learn something new. About yourself. About other people. That’s expected. We’re used to eating all the time. Don’t eat for five or ten or twelve days, and that’s a big change. Big changes always have lessons in them.
This year, my mind drifted towards these ideas above. About how we arrive at the habits we follow and the beliefs we have. Last night, I had just finished a workout and was feeling so great. I thought to myself, how is it possible to not eat for nine days and feel so great? Logic would tell you it should be the opposite!
But I’d mistaken logic for Edward Bernays.
Three meals a day, every day. Edward had told me that since I was born, said it was healthy, gave you energy.
Funnily, it’s actually the opposite. Eating too often saps our energy (food coma, anyone?), and most food we eat is bad for us. 90% of the population would be far healthier if they skipped a meal every day. We’re supposed to eat for survival, and using myself as a living example, you can see we don’t need to eat every day to survive, or even flourish. The Muslim world fasts sun-up to sun-down every year for a full month, and has done so for millennia.
But, Edward Bernays wouldn’t like you to know that. He needs you to eat three meals a day, that’s his job. Well, he needs you to buy three meals a day. He probably doesn’t care if you actually eat them.
Can you imagine what would happen if the government recommended people fast two days a week? To only eat only one big home-cooked meal per day? Do a ten-day fast every year?
Edward Bernays would lose his job. Bacon companies would lay off half their staff. Restaurants, cafes, and farms would lose 2/3 of their revenue overnight. Supermarkets too. The country’s economy would implode.
Yet, that’s exactly what we should be doing. Obesity is off the charts, everybody’s on cholesterol meds, we all know someone who has diabetes. Maybe we should eat less, Edward?
No way! Keep buying three meals a day. Please.
Except nowadays, it’s not even just three meals anymore. It’s five meals, six meals.
Try this! Perfect for a mid-afternoon snack! Treat yourself to one of these before bedtime!
We’re sold things to eat while we’re watching television, while we’re in the car, before we go to the gym.
Want some popcorn? You can’t watch a movie without popcorn!
Suddenly we’re getting told to eat when we’re bored, when it’s a holiday, when someone gets married, when we’re celebrating, when we have an office meeting.
In fact, Edward Bernays tells us, eating to survive is silly now. Instead, eat to have fun. Eat to show friends how much they mean to you. Eat because it will make the movie better. Eating this will make you happy.
They never tell you the real reason:
Eat because we want to sell you more food.
So, what can we do about it?
Well, the solution is kind of simple: Eat less food.
But why stop there? Imagine if we didn’t just change our behaviour with food. Imagine if we decoded the influence in every area of our lives.
Example: It’s Valentine’s Day. Of course, Edward Bernays is telling you to
spend a shitload of money on meaningless things buy an expensive dinner for your girlfriend and maybe some flowers and chocolate. If he doesn’t do that, Edward says, he doesn’t love you.
But what if you just, I don’t know, do things that actually show her you love her. Such as giving her a massage, holding her hand, baking her a cake in your kitchen, picking her a flower from the garden, taking a long walk with her and having a meaningful conversation. That would be crazy, right?
Well, Edward definitely thinks it’s crazy, because none of those things require a credit card. He’d be having a seizure hearing people suggest that. If everyone did that, both him and the CEO of Hallmark would lose their jobs by the weekend.
But, this is the world we designed. We need to spend. It’s what keeps this system turning. If every adult in the country buys a BMW, people will celebrate – GDP is going to grow 10%, the government will collect billions of tax, everyone’s going to look rich. The country will be booming.
But, that also means for GDP to rise again the following year, every adult will need to spend even more. They can’t just buy another BMW, they need to buy a Ferrari. If not, GDP will go down. Suddenly people will be screaming recession, the president will be out of a job, it would be a disaster.
So…they get Edward Bernays on the phone.
Morning Edward, job for you. Need you to help us sell a few Ferraris.
Now when you fast for nine days, and you live out of a backpack, and everything in your life is still fine, it tells you something. It tells you you can live outside that world. It tells you how much less you need to live a good life. It tells you how little food you need, how little money you need. It tells you how much time you can get back, just by rejecting everyone else’s influence. It tells you you can give up the bacon and the sunglasses and the eye test upgrade and the sparkly watch, and nothing will happen. Instead of buying all those things from Edward Bernays, you can keep that money in the bank and invest it. Which means instead of retiring after 40 years you can retire after 15. Because I’m sure you’ve realised by now, Edward Bernays is a millionaire. He’s a millionaire because of all the money you keep giving him.
Now wouldn’t it be nice if you started keeping that money, and became a millionaire yourself?
The funny thing about that is, it’s so simple to do. All you have to do is, nothing.
Don’t go to the mall, don’t look at the menu, don’t try on any sunglasses. Just stop doing it. Do nothing. Watch your bank account grow. What road to becoming a millionaire could be easier than that?
Okay fine, we can’t spend our lives sitting around doing nothing. But you don’t need to give any money to Edward to live your best life. Read a book from the library (it’s free). Work out at the park (it’s free). Go for a run (it’s free). Do some yoga (it’s free). Meditate (it’s free). Have a conversation with a friend (it’s free). Go hiking (it’s free). Take a swim at the beach (it’s free). Write a story (it’s free). Eat less food. Do more exercise. Ride a bike to work. It’s free.
Here’s the irony: After living this way for a while, you’ll start to notice something. You have way more money. Meaning you can start buying whatever you want. The difference is, you don’t want those things anymore. So you invest it, get richer every day, and you just keep on living.
I can tell you, for sure, it’s a far happier way to live.