10 Most Deceptive PR Campaigns in History

Edward Bernays (1891-1995) is considered the father of public relations and features a lot in our countdown of deceptive PR moves.
© Bettmann/CORBISmoves

During World War II, a wealth of processed, nonperishable foods were created to ship to American soldiers. When the war ended, the companies that produced these foods wanted to keep business going but the public wasn't interested in eating this canned and boxed stuff. No, they wanted to eat fresh, wholesome foods just as they always had. So the companies began aggressive public relations campaigns to change consumers' minds.

One of the first campaigns that finally resonated was for boxed cake mixes that needed just one egg to be made. Letting the homemaker contribute to the baking by cracking that one egg made a boxed mix seem less fake. Eventually the public bought into purchasing and consuming all sorts of prepackaged foods, which hasn't turned out to be the best thing for our diets [source: Bogacki].


At least those PR campaigns weren't intentionally deceptive. Yes, they may have employed psychological methods to make us buy something we hadn't previously wanted, but they weren't using overt lies. Unfortunately, there are many instances in the past where PR campaigns intentionally lied, deceived and misled the public to achieve their goals. We'll tell you about 10 of the most egregious ones.

10: Bacon Is Good for You

In the 1920s, Bernays got thousands of doctors to say that a heavier breakfast was a healthier breakfast — and bacon and eggs was just the ticket. We've been hooked ever since.

Back in the 1920s, the Beech-Nut Packing Company wanted to sell more of its bacon. Yes, the same company that now specializes in baby food once also produced peanut butter, coffee, baked beans and chewing gum along with its hit, jarred bacon. Beech-Nut hired Edward Bernays — the nephew of Sigmund Freud, and a PR mastermind — to help it persuade the public that they should be chowing down on more of the porcine product.

At that time in history, Americans enjoyed a fairly simplistic morning meal: coffee and a roll, for example, or perhaps some oatmeal and fruit. Bernays asked the physician working with his public relations firm whether Americans would be healthier if they ate heartier breakfasts. The doctor confirmed this. Bernays then requested he write to 5,000 of his medical colleagues asking them to agree that a heavy breakfast was the best way to start the day due to the loss of energy overnight. "Newspapers had headlines saying 4,500 physicians urge heavier breakfasts," Bernays recalled years later. The publications specifically mentioned bacon and eggs as taking care of the "problem." The campaign was a success for Beech-Nut, and Americans soon developed a taste for bacon and eggs at breakfast [sources: American Table, Funding Universe].


Of course, bacon is also high in saturated fat, sodium and cholesterol, none of which are good for you [source: Magee]. But bacon and eggs (with a side of fried potatoes) still defines the classic American breakfast.

9: Women's Right to Smoke Is Linked With Liberation

Bernays also organized a PR stunt equating ladies smoking with women's rights. Cigarette sales among women took off.
© Underwood & Underwood/Corbis

Edward Bernays created several brilliant-but-deceptive campaigns during his long lifetime. No wonder he's called the "father of public relations." He undertook another notable project at the behest of the American Tobacco Company. Shortly after World War I concluded, the tobacco group was jonesing to snag a huge part of the market it was missing: women [source: Frevele]. Back then, it was considered improper for women to smoke in public. This limited the American Tobacco Company to courting only half of the American public.

Enter Bernays. The women's suffrage movement was in full swing, and many females were anxious to enjoy more of the same rights as men. Bernays' plan, launched in 1929, involved gathering together a group of society women at New York's popular (and visible) Easter Sunday Parade. With cameras rolling and photogs snapping, the women proudly lit up all at once. By linking women's lib with the ability to freely smoke in public, innumerable females jumped on board and took up the new habit. Bernays —and the American Tobacco Company – notched a win. Women, of course, ended up the losers, when cancer, emphysema and a host of other smoking-related illnesses struck many of them, in the same way men were afflicted [source: Frevele].


8: United Fruit Overthrows Guatemala's Government

This 1954 photo shows the first group of prisoners taken in Guatemala in the battle for Chiquimula by anti-Communist liberation forces. The impetus for this "revolution" came in large part from United Fruit Company.
© Bettmann/CORBIS

For much of the 20th century, Chiquita Brands International, formerly United Fruit Company, dominated weak or corrupt governments in Central America, where it grew most of its bananas. Sure, the company could make a lot of cash just by selling the fruit. But if it could also control, say, the railroads, shipping and governments themselves, it could really rake in the dough. So it set out to do just that, becoming the impetus for the term banana republic, used to describe small countries economically dependent upon one export commodity — like bananas — that are ruled by a weak government or dictator [source: Fischer].

In 1950, United Fruit ran into a particularly thorny problem. Guatemalans overwhelmingly elected the left-leaning Jacobo Arbenz Guzman as their leader. Guzman, a champion of the poor, was pushing agrarian land reform to help them, as well as negate some of United Fruit's power. For the fruit company, that simply would not do.


For the third time on our list, Edward Bernays comes to the rescue. He was already the company's PR counsel and began a campaign to convince Americans that Guzman was a closet Communist. Bernays brought journalists into the region, where they were fed false information, and even tapped "intelligence agents" to conduct "a private survey" which — surprise! —confirmed what he said. The U.S. government, pressured to conduct a coup, toppled Guzman's regime, though a CIA-trained "liberation army." (In addition to PR spin, United Fruit had close ties to the CIA.) America's intervention was widely condemned by the international community. For decades after Guzman was toppled, people all over Latin America lost hope for governmental reform, and the region became a hotbed of revolution [sources: Kurtz-Phelan, Fischer].

7: Diamonds Are Expensive Because They're Rare

Diamonds weren't always the engagement stone of choice. A clever advertising campaign convinced the public that a "diamond is forever" — just like love. Or so we like to believe.
Paul Katz/Getty Images

Actually, they're quite plentiful. Rubies are the gemstones that are truly rare. Yet men have been slipping diamond rings on women's fingers for more than a century, both sexes convinced that this expensive stone is the only real way to express true love. Turns out this tradition was spurred by nothing more than a savvy public relations campaign coupled with a big dose of corporate skullduggery [source: Kaplan].

It all began in 1880s South Africa, when Cecil Rhodes, head of De Beers Consolidated Mines, realized if he purchased as many diamond mines as he could, then restricted the supply of stones they produced, he could jack up prices. So he and his successors did just that, at one point controlling some 90 percent of the world's rough-diamond trade [source: Zoellner].


Along with this strategy, the company eventually enlisted the help of crack ad agency N.W. Ayer & Son, which created the "A Diamond Is Forever" campaign in 1914, considered by Advertising Age to be the most recognized and effective slogan of the 20th century. (It's still in use more than 100 years later) [sources: Kennedy and Kaplan]. The message? Diamonds are the one, true gift of love: No engagement is complete without one. The public eagerly bought into the campaign. Just as planned.

6: American Red Cross Covers Up Poor Performance

An American Red Cross (ARC) volunteer hands out water to Greensburg, Kansas locals after a tornado destroyed their town in 2007. While the ARC has done a lot of good work, it's also been criticized for mismanagement in recent years.
© Mike Theiss/Ultimate Chase/Corbis

This venerable organization and its volunteers have been helping people suffering from wars, natural disasters and other tragedies since 1881 [source: American Red Cross]. Or have they? While the American Red Cross (ARC) undoubtedly has done much good over the years, it stumbled badly in the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac and Superstorm Sandy, both of which slammed portions of the U.S. in 2012. Shortly after both storms, the Red Cross was caught empty-handed, often without such basic supplies as food and batteries to dole out to victims [source: Sullivan].

There was one thing the Red Cross succeeded at, however — covering up its poor performance. According to an investigation by ProPublica and NPR, in the aftermath of Isaac, an ARC official ordered 80 of its empty trucks to be driven around a Mississippi town just for show. During the Sandy cleanup, a full 40 percent of all available trucks were pulled off the streets simply to be visible in the background during news conferences. The Red Cross also wasted a ton of food — about 30 percent of meals it prepared went uneaten because it didn't have accurate information about where the hungry people were. And in one case, officials demanded a huge mobile kitchen (that had closed for lack of need) be restarted as demonstration just for donors [source: Elliott, Eisinger and Sullivan].


5: Products With 'Made in the USA' Labels Are Made Overseas

A "proudly made in the USA" logo is seen on the packaging of a brush produced at Detroit Quality Brushes in Livonia, Michigan. Not all companies that display this logo really make their products in America.
© REBECCA COOK/Reuters/Corbis

Nearly 80 percent of Americans prefer to purchase products made in the USA. Not only that, more than 60 percent will pony up 10 percent more for the privilege of doing so [source: Consumer Reports]. Why? Americans think their goods are of a higher quality, for one. They want to support their own workers. And they're worried about child labor and other unsavory practices that may go on overseas. It's not surprising, then, that many companies, both foreign and domestic, will try to deceive Americans into thinking their products were made locally, when in reality they are not.

According to Federal Trade Commission (FTC) rules, all, or almost all, of a product with a "Made in the USA" label should be crafted with American materials. Additionally, its final assembly or processing must be done either in one of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, or in a U.S. territory or possession. But some companies will slap a huge American flag on their product's package, then hide a tiny disclaimer noting all parts were imported. Or, more blatantly, they'll openly claim a product was made in the U.S. when it wasn't. One example of many: the Stanley Works, an American toolmaker, was fined $205,000 by the FTC in 2006 after marketing its Zero Degree ratchets as "Made in the USA," when in reality the ratchets were crafted with a substantial amount of foreign material [sources: Consumer Reports, Federal Trade Commission].


4: Calling 'Sugar' Different Names

The "nutrition facts" label is seen on a box of Pop Tarts at a store in New York, Feb. 27, 2014. Some companies use all kinds of deceptive practices to make the sugar content of their products look smaller.

In the 1950s, Americans ate 110 pounds (50 kilograms) of sugar per person annually. By 2000, they were up to 152 pounds (69 kilograms) [source: Clark]. Experts say the most harmful component in our diets today is likely — you guessed it — sugar. So, many of us are trying to lessen our consumption of the sweet stuff. To help, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that ingredients in food products be listed in order of quantity (by weight) from greatest to least. This way, consumers can scan a label and see how much sugar, for one, is in a food product. Except it's not quite that simple.

Food manufacturers don't always want us to know how much sugar is in their products. Some deceive consumers by sweetening a product with several sweeteners. Doing so allows them to list each sweetener separately. So, if their product's main ingredient is sugar, that would be the first item listed in the ingredients — potentially a turn-off for consumers. But if they use, say, four types of sweeteners, that might cause other, healthier ingredients to be listed first, and all of the sugars at or near the end of the list, making the product seem like sugar was a minor part. Another commonly used trick is to call the added sugar in a product "evaporated cane juice," as Greek yogurt-maker Chobani has done. Many consumers think evaporated cane juice is a healthy juice, not just another name for sugar [source: Truth in Advertising].


3: Iraq Has Weapons of Mass Destruction

A participant wears a Laura Bush mask in an antiwar demonstration in Hollywood in 2008.
© Gene Blevins/LA Daily News/Corbis

At the time of the Iraq war in 2003, one reason given for the U.S. military action was that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD). This was despite the fact that the U.N. chief weapons inspector found no WMD [source: CNN]. Authors Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, who run PRWatch, say the U.S. was able to pull off that feat by using PR tactics to get the American public clamoring for such an invasion.

First, they say, the George W. Bush Administration, through misinformation and repetition, made Americans believe Iraq was behind the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Documents were presented to the U.N. that discussed Iraq's huge stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. These were later found to be forgeries. (Opinions differ as to whether the U.S. government knew they were fakes in advance [source: Pincus].)


Former Bush press secretary Scott McClellan wrote in a book in 2008,"[Bush's] advisers decided to pursue a political propaganda campaign to sell the war to the American people ... A nuclear threat was added to the biological and chemical threats to create a greater sense of gravity and urgency. Support for terrorism was given greater weight by playing up a dubious al Qaeda connection to Iraq. When it was all packaged together, the case constituted a 'grave and gathering danger' that needed to be dealt with urgently."

When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, many media outlets showed images of jubilant Iraqis, thrilled to be saved from Hussein's dastardly clutches. We saw close-ups of both Americans and Iraqis helping pull down Hussein's statue, set in Firdos Square; we weren't shown the long-range photo of the square, which was nearly empty of people [source: Rampton and Stauber].

2: Global Warming Is a Hoax

Ileene Anderson, dressed as Goofy, Valeria Love and Andrea Weber, dressed as a polar bear called Frostpaw, rally against the Keystone XL Canada-to-Texas pipeline project in Bel-Air, California in 2014.
David McNew/Getty Images

The notion of climate change, or global warming, has been around for years now. Some think it's real, some say it's not. Even the scientific community is in turmoil, so how can we possibly figure out the truth? Actually, the scientific community isn't in turmoil over global warming. In 2013, a group of scientists looked over 4,014 abstracts on climate change and found an amazing rate of consensus. A full 97.2 percent of the papers assumed humans had at least some role in global warming.

And most Americans aren't on the fence, either. According to Scientific American, surveys show 89 percent of Democrats, 70 percent of Republicans and 79 percent of independents think global warming is occurring, thanks at least in part to people. So why do we think the issue is still in such a flux?


The scientists who don't believe in global warming are a small group, but they're vocal. They also have a wealth of political connections. For decades, their supporters have run campaigns to mislead people about not only global warming, but about the ozone hole, acid rain and other well-established scientific knowledge. They do so by persuading the media to cover their views whenever their opponents' thoughts are cited. Climate change skeptics also work to create the illusion that there's much discord on the subject among climate scientists, which further confuses the public as to what's considered accepted science on the subject and what's fringe craziness. Sadly, their efforts have worked for many years [sources: Merchants of Doubt, Vaidyanathan].

1: Posting Fake Positive Online Reviews

Many small businesses have been caught posting fake positive reviews about themselves and/or posting fake negative reviews about their competitors on Yelp.
© David Bro/ZUMA Press/Corbis

Positive online reviews can really help a small business. And negative reviews can tear it down. With that in mind, it didn't take long for company owners to realize they could post fake positive reviews for themselves, or poor reviews of their competitors to help the bottom line. So many did. They also solicited others to post reviews on their behalf.

Yelp, an online company with millions of reviews of local businesses, got fed up with the practice. Company personnel were finding one fake review posted on its site for every five new real ones. So it set up a sting to catch businesses in the act.

In 2012, a Yelp employee posed as an elite Yelp reviewer for hire on Craigslist and was offered $5 to $200 for posting false reviews. In some cases, the businesses had written a review of themselves they wanted the person simply to post. Other businesses wrote parts of reviews and asked the reviewer to fill in the rest. To punish offending businesses, Yelp posted a consumer alert on their profile pages. TripAdvisor put up similar scam notices [source: Streitfeld].

Unfortunately, the practice is not likely to stop any time soon. Consumers should be wary of extra-positive or negative reviews, particularly if they are generic, rather than giving specific examples. Potential customers should read through multiple reviews of a business to see if people praise or gripe about common things [source: Johnston].

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 Most Deceptive PR Campaigns in History

It was certainly disheartening to learn about all of the deception constantly occurring in PR campaigns. Makes you lose a little faith in humanity.

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • American Red Cross. "Our History." (Aug. 6, 2015) http://www.redcross.org/about-us/history
  • Bogacki, Mike. "Public relations often relies on deception, lies." Collegiate Times. Dec. 8, 2009. (Aug. 8, 2015) http://www.collegiatetimes.com/opinion/columnists/public-relations-often-relies-on-deception-lies/article_d883fdcc-a681-51f6-a024-f1c7d92f1ef6.html
  • Clark, Bruce. "The American Diet: A Sweet Way to Die." Food Safety News. Feb. 26, 2010. (Aug. 6, 2015) http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2010/02/the-american-diet-a-sweet-way-to-die/#.VcPJCXFVhBd
  • Colleary, Eric. "How 'Bacon And Eggs' Became The American Breakfast." The American Table. July 19, 2012. (Aug. 3, 2015) http://www.americantable.org/2012/07/how-bacon-and-eggs-became-the-american-breakfast/
  • Consumer Reports. "Knowing Which Products are Truly Made in America." February 2013. (Aug. 3, 2015) http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/magazine/2013/02/made-in-america/index.htm
  • Consumer Reports. "Made in America." May 21, 2015. (Aug. 5, 2015) http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/magazine/2015/05/made-in-america/index.htm
  • Elliott, Justin and Jesse Eisinger and Laura Sullivan. "The Red Cross' Secret Disaster." Pro Publica. Oct. 29, 2014. (Aug. 6, 2015) http://www.propublica.org/article/the-red-cross-secret-disaster
  • Federal Trade Commission (FTC). "FTC Alleges Stanley Made False Made in the USA Claims About Its Tools." June 9, 2006. (Aug. 5, 2015) https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2006/06/ftc-alleges-stanley-made-false-made-usa-claims-about-its-tools
  • Fischer, Brendan. "A Banana Republic Once Again?" The Center for Media and Democracy's PR Watch. Dec. 27, 2010. (Aug. 3, 2015) http://www.prwatch.org/news/2010/12/9834/banana-republic-once-again
  • Frevele, Jamie. "That Time Cigarette Manufacturers Got Women to Smoke by Equating It With Freedom." The Mary Sue. Feb. 27, 2012. (Aug. 3, 2015) http://www.themarysue.com/smoking-suffragettes/
  • Funding Universe. "Beech-Nut Nutrition Corporation History." (Aug. 4, 2015) http://www.fundinguniverse.com/company-histories/beech-nut-nutrition-corporation-history/
  • Johnston, Susan. "Don't Fall for Fake Online Reviews." U.S. News & World Report. July 8, 2014. (Aug. 8, 2015) http://money.usnews.com/money/personal-finance/articles/2014/07/08/dont-fall-for-fake-online-reviews
  • Kaplan, Barry. "Forever Diamonds." Gemnation. (Aug. 5, 2015) http://www.gemnation.com/base?processor=getPage&pageName=forever_diamonds_1
  • Kennedy, Dan. "A Great Ad Campaign Can Last Forever." Entrepreneur. (Aug. 3, 2015) http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/200030
  • Kurtz-Phelan, Daniel. "Big Fruit." The New York Times. March 2, 2008. (Aug. 5, 2015) http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/02/books/review/Kurtz-Phelan-t.html?_r=0
  • McMullen, Troy. "Dannon to Pay $45M to Settle Yogurt Lawsuit." ABC News. Feb. 26, 2010. (Aug. 3, 2015) http://abcnews.go.com/Business/dannon-settles-lawsuit/story?id=9950269
  • Merchants of Doubt. "Frequently Asked Questions." (Aug. 6, 2015) http://merchantsofdoubt.org/faq.html
  • Rampton, Sheldon and John Stauber. "Weapons of Mass Deception." The Center for Media and Democracy's PR Watch. (Aug. 3, 2015) http://www.prwatch.org/books/wmd.html
  • Streitfeld, David. "Buy Reviews on Yelp, Get Black Mark." The New York Times. Oct. 16, 2012. (Aug. 8, 2015) http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/18/technology/yelp-tries-to-halt-deceptive-reviews.html?_r=1
  • Sullivan, Laura. "Red Cross 'Diverted Assets' During Storms' Aftermath To Focus on Image." NPR. Oct. 29, 2014. (Aug. 3, 2015) http://www.npr.org/2014/10/29/359365276/on-superstorm-sandy-anniversary-red-cross-under-scrutiny
  • Truth in Advertising. "Seeking The Truth In Food Labels." July 3, 2012. (Aug. 3, 2015) https://www.truthinadvertising.org/always-read-the-label-food-label-deception/
  • Vaidyanathan, Gayathri. "How to Determine the Scientific Consensus on Global Warming." Scientific American. July 24, 2014. (Aug. 6, 2015) http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-to-determine-the-scientific-consensus-on-global-warming/
  • Zoellner, Tom. "Five myths about diamonds." The Washington Post. July 4, 2010. (Aug. 5, 2015) http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/02/AR2010070203990.html