How Two Guys are the Reason We Eat What We Eat for Breakfast
Bacon, eggs, toast, and a tall glass of orange juice: it’s a breakfast as traditionally American as apple pie. And it’s not hard to see why: after all, bacon and eggs are chock-full of protein while orange juice provides a healthy dose of vitamin C. Packing the calories and nutrients needed to fuel our busy lives, this combination has been a fixture of the American breakfast table for hundreds of years.
…only, no, it hasn’t. While few of us can imagine eating anything else in the morning, this staple breakfast as we know it is actually less than a century old. And far from being traditional, the combination of bacon, eggs, and orange juice is the deliberate product of a highly-influential marketing campaigns concocted by two of the greatest advertising minds of the 20th Century.
You may never have heard of Edward Bernays, but you’ve definitely seen his work. Born on November 22, 1891 in Vienna, Bernays was the nephew of the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. From an early age Bernays was fascinated by his “Uncle Siggy’s” theories, especially as they pertained to people’s unconscious thoughts and desires. Indeed, Bernays was the first person to publish Freud’s work in the United States, and often used his connection to his famous uncle to advance his own career. In the early 1910s Bernays worked as theatre press agent, introducing the American public to the avant-garde Ballet Russes and helping to make opera singer Enrico Caruso a beloved star. During the First World War, he was recruited by the Committee on Public Information, a government organization devoted to shaping public opinion via propaganda printed in newspapers, pamphlets, posters, and other media. This work was a revelation for Bernays, who later recalled:
“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.”
After the war, Bernays formed his own marketing agency, combining his wartime CPI experience with his uncle Freud’s theories to pioneer a new field he dubbed “public relations.” One early campaign illustrates just how insightful – and diabolical – his approach could be. In 1928, George Washington Hill, CEO of the American Tobacco Company, came to Bernays with a problem: getting women to smoke. At the time it was almost unheard of for women to light up, the act of smoking being strongly associated with masculine virility. This deeply-entrenched cultural taboo was cutting American Tobacco off from a large, potentially lucrative market.
Bernays’ unorthodox campaign proceeded in three phases. American Tobacco’s research had revealed that women were put off by the green packaging of the company’s Lucy Strike brand cigarettes, green being seen as an unfashionable colour. After determining that the packaging was too expensive to change, Bernays decided instead to bring green back into vogue, organizing, among other events, a ‘Green Gala’ at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel for some of society’s most prominent trend-setters. Next, working off of Lucky Strike’s new slogan “Reach for a Lucky, not a sweet,” he publicized a scientific study on the negative effects of sugar and distributed photos of slim models smoking cigarettes, firmly linking the habit with keeping the trim “flapper” physique popular at the time. While the campaign worked, it only succeeded in getting women to smoke at home; in order to break the taboo against women smoking in public, Bernays went after another subconscious female desire. In newspapers around the country, he announced that at the upcoming 1929 Easter Parade along 5th Avenue a group of 30 debutantes would light “torches of freedom” in support of women’s liberation. When the day finally arrived, startled reporters looked on as the women confidently pulled out cigarettes and lit up. Almost overnight, smoking became associated with the modern, liberated woman, and sales of Lucky Strikes and other cigarette brands soared. The principle of consumption as personal statement or political performance remains a standard of the marketing toolkit to this day.
But Bernays’ most influential and long-lived campaign ran a few years earlier. In 1922 he was approached by the Beech-Nut Packing Company, which over the past few decades, Beech-Nut had seen a steady decline in its sales of bacon and eggs. This was largely the result of sweeping changes in the American labour market. For hundreds of years most Americans worked on farms, and to fuel this hard labour they ate hearty breakfasts including bacon and eggs. With the coming of industrialization, however, many Americans moved to the city and took up less physically-demanding work. At the same time, evangelists like John Harvey Kellogg began advocating a bland diet of cereals to ward off sinful impulses, while growing concerns over indigestion and keeping slim pushed people away from rich, fatty foods. By the 1920s the typical American breakfast consisted of little more than a roll or piece of toast, oatmeal, a piece of fruit or glass of orange juice, and a cup of coffee.
In order to reverse the trend, Bernays first contacted his agency’s resident physician and asked him whether a light breakfast or a heavy breakfast would be better for overall health. As he later recalled:
“[He agreed] that a heavy breakfast was sounder from the standpoint of health than a light breakfast because the body loses energy during the night and needs it during the day. We asked the physician: would he be willing, at no cost, to write to 5000 physicians and ask them whether their judgement was the same as his? He said he would be glad to do it. We [sent] out a letter to 5000 physicians; obviously all of them concurred that a heavier breakfast was better for the health of the American people than a light breakfast.”
In August and September of that year, newspapers around the country trumpeted the verdict of some 4500 physicians, the Chicago Tribune recommending:
“Brain workers and persons in sedentary occupations should eat a substantial breakfast [of] fruit, cereals, bacon, eggs, toast—or as we of the south prefer, hot biscuits.”
While the Los Angeles Times breathlessly announced, under the headline ENTER THE BIG BREAKFAST:
“We were in dire peril of falling for the finicky French roll and chocolate, the virginal English tea and marmalade, the slice of fruit and swallow of vermouth of the Mediterranean. Not so breakfasted the men who hewed a new civilization from the rocks of the Western continent…. Ham, eggs, bacon, cornmeal, buckwheat cakes, maple syrup, codfish balls, coffee in great mugs, hot biscuits, butter without stint or limit, hash, fried potatoes, apple pie, farm-made cream cheese, bowls of warm, frothy milk—on the strength of such breakfasts as these the young republic grew to world overlordship.”
The campaign was an instant success, Beech-Nut seeing sales of Bacon and Eggs climb back to pre-1900 levels. So successful, in fact, was Bernays at cementing in the American mind the association between bacon, eggs, and breakfast that to this day 70% of bacon consumed in the United States is eaten at breakfast.
Over his long career Edward Bernays would mastermind countless such campaigns, using his mastery of human psychology to mould public opinion and carve out new markets for his clients. For example, in 1924 he threw an elaborate pancake breakfast at the White House in support of Calvin Coolidge’s reelection campaign, creating a beloved political tradition that persists to this day. In the late 1940s, General Mills introduced its Betty Crocker-brand instant cake mix, but early sales were disappointing. Turning once again to psychoanalysis, Bernays deduced why: housewives, he reasoned, were put off by instant mix because they themselves contributed very little to the baking process, making them feel lazy and like they were failing their husbands. To correct this, Bernays added a single instruction to the box: add an egg. This tiny contribution did the trick, and sales of Betty Crocker immediately picked up. In the 1950s Bernays partnered with the American Dental Association to help the American Aluminium Company sell water fluoridation to the American people, while his campaign for Dixie Cup convinced people that regular drinking glasses were unsanitary, driving up sales of disposable cups.
Bernays’ approach to marketing is perhaps best summed up by his biographer, Larry Tye:
“Hired to sell a product or service, he instead sold whole new ways of behaving, which appeared obscure but over time reaped huge rewards for his clients and redefined the very texture of American life.”
While his work has been widely criticized as underhanded, manipulative, and dangerous – it was reported that Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels had a copy of his book Crystallizing Public Opinion on his bookshelf – Bernays himself took a different view:
“We worked out the engineering of consent, which applies to any social goal. But the people who don’t have social goals, unfortunately, can also employ it.”
Indeed, in his later years Bernays would do extensive pro bono work for non-profit organizations such as the NAACP American Cancer Society – including, ironically, on an anti-smoking campaign. Following a career spanning seven decades, Edward Bernays died on March 9, 1995 at the age of 104.
But the story of the American breakfast doesn’t quite end there. Remember how we said that the standard breakfast of the 1920s included a glass of orange juice? Well, just like bacon and eggs, there was nothing traditional about this breakfast staple either; in fact, up until the early 1910s, drinking orange juice was almost unheard of in America. This now-ubiquitous daily habit had to be invented by the other American godfather of marketing: Alan Lasker.
In 1908 the Southern California Fruit Growers Association partnered with Lasker’s firm Lord & Thomas to find a way to sell more oranges to the American public. While orange production in California was booming, demand had plateaued, leading to an orange surplus that threatened to tank prices and destroy the industry. Lasker’s first step was to rebrand the Association, giving them the now-familiar name of Sunkist. Increasing orange sales proved a trickier task, but in 1916 Lasker hit upon a solution. While the average American ate only half an orange at breakfast, a glass of orange juice took up to 3-4 oranges to make. If Americans could be convinced to make their own orange juice, orange consumption would significantly increase. To this end, Lasker designed a simple home juice press and heavily promoted it in magazines like The Saturday Evening Post, under the catchy slogan “Drink an Orange.” These ads touted the health benefits of orange juice and even included a promotion whereby customers could collect and redeem orange wrappers and receive a free juicer. The campaign coincided perfectly with a health scare over vitamin deficiency and a condition called acidosis – a panic Sunkist was quick to exploit. A 1929 ad reading:
“Estelle seemed to lack vitality; didn’t even make an effort to be entertaining; hence, she did not attract the men…‘Acidosis’ is the word on almost every modern physician’s tongue.”
In 1934 scientists discovered that acidosis was actually a rare disease unaffected by drinking orange juice, but by then the damage was done. Almost overnight, orange consumption shot up nearly 400%, almost single-handedly saving the U.S. orange industry and securing orange juice’s coveted spot at the American breakfast table.
The campaign also cemented in the minds of the American public the notion that orange juice is a uniquely healthy drink, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In fact, the average glass of orange juice contains a whopping 27g of sugar – about as much as a can of Coca-Cola. When an orange is eaten, the pulp, being difficult to digest, causes this sugar to be absorbed much slower throughout the day. The sugar in orange juice, by contrast, is absorbed more or less all at once, meaning that over-consumption of orange and other commercial fruit juices carries the same obesity and diabetes risk as drinking sugary sodas. And while ads for orange juice promote it as ‘natural’ and ‘fresh,’ the modern product found on store shelves is anything but. Raw orange juice is often stored for up to a year before reaching the consumer, and the pasteurization process used to render it safe also strips it of most of its natural flavours and aromas. Orange juice producers must thus use ‘flavour packs’ – specially-formulated blends of processed orange oils and other aromatic compounds – to reintroduce these flavours to the juice before packaging and selling it.
The upshot of all this is just how intentionally planned many of our most common habits really are. No matter how ‘traditional’ it might appear, if you regularly consume some specific food, drink, or other product, there’s a good chance it’s because some marketing executive somewhere wanted you to.
And as a corollary, as we’ve covered in great detail on the origins of most major holidays, pretty much every holiday that enjoys massive popularity usually has that popularity thanks to one or more advertising campaigns that propelled it into the Big Leagues of holidays, and other campaigns that keep it there. Holidays that aren’t easily commercialized, rarely see the same heights of popularity as those that are. So next time you’re lamenting the over commercialization of some of our most beloved holidays, remember that the holiday probably wouldn’t even be much of a thing if it hadn’t been massively commercialized.
- Why Are Continental Breakfasts Called That?
- How Did Cereal Become “Part of a Complete Breakfast”?
- The History of Burritos
- What Happens to Big Food Made to Break World Records?
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