"Torches of Freedom"
The American Tobacco company hired Edward Bernays, known as the master of propaganda, in the late 1920s to solve a problem which seemed unsolvable. Only a fraction of potential female customers was addicted to cigarettes, while men were heavy cigarettes consumers. Bernays’ was given the task to promote the consumption of cigarettes among women and win new customers for the company.
But how should he do that? Women that smoked in public were a taboo at that time and it seemed impossible to convince them of the “benefits” of smoking.
Edward Barneys challenged the taboo by reframing the meaning of cigarettes. What followed was one of the most impressive and influential Public Relations campaigns of all time.
In this article I will explain what Bernays’ strategy and analyze why it was so successful.
It’s the early 1920s in the United States of America. The tipping point is reached that more people live in cities than on the country side. Individualized and exposed to more media content than ever before, the psychographics of a huge number of Americans start to change. The middle class is booming and with it the wealth of the average citizen. The consumer society of the US starts to expand and with it voices that are calling for more equality.
Race equality, as well as gender equality.
The role of women in the American society changed during the first world war, as women started to work more frequently than they did in previous decades. Women started to demand gender equality and developed new habits that were previously reserved for men. Examples are earning an own income or smoking cigarettes.
Smoking cigarettes in public is still a taboo for women at that time and stops them from smoking regularly or even smoking at all.
The American Tobacco Company, the biggest cigarette seller at that time, views women as potential customers and decides that they want to break the taboo of smoking women. But how can they achieve this? Changing deep-rooted taboos in the American society seems like an impossible act.
The chairman of the American Tobacco Company, George Washington Hill, has an idea and hires the advertisement jewel of his rival Chesterfield, Edward Barneys.
At the American Tobacco Company, Barneys is given the objective to increase tobacco sales along women, who for the most part, had formally avoided smoking. Albert Lasker, who plays a major role in shaping advertising at that time, already works for the American Tobacco Company. Slim figures are becoming vogue among women and Lasker has the idea to advertise Lucky Strikes with the sentence: “Reach for a Lucky, instead of a sweet!”. The campaign needs visual support and Bernays starts hiring photographers, artists, newspapers and magazines to promote the special beauty of thin women. Part of his campaign is to caution home-makers that having cigarettes on hand is a social necessity.
In addition to that, Barneys contacts doctors, public leading figures in determining what is considered healthy and unhealthy, that agree with him: sweets are unhealthy. Barneys frames the doctor’s consent to promote Lucky Strike’s campaign by claiming that medical authorities prioritize cigarettes over sweets.
The campaign is a huge success, women start to smoke and the American Tobacco Company brings in more revenue. Lucky Strike now leads the market in growth but the taboo of women smoking in public remains.
„How can we get women to smoke on the street. They’re smoking indoors. But, damn it, if they spend half the time outdoors and we can get ’em to smoke outdoors, we’ll damn near double our female market. Do something. Act!“, are the nervous words of G.W. Hill.
Bernays remains calm, feels compassion for his boss, another human being led by his emotions and already has an idea. An idea which will go into history as one of the biggest wins of the public relations industry.
No challenge is too big for the young Bernays, the active thinker that speaks of inertia as “the great enemy of any attempt to change men’s habits”. Later, Bernays will say “We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.”
None, of Bernays’s quotes would fit the strategy better with which he will abandon the social taboo of women smoking in public.
Bernays, strongly influenced by Gustave Le Bon’s principles of mass psychology and Wilfred Trotter’s writings on herd instincts, thinks of his “Uncle Sigi”, Sigmund Freud, in Vienna. He ponders and asks himself what all those theories have in common. They are based on the human tendencies to follow leaders, have a weakness for symbols and an appeal to unconscious desires.
Bernays contacts the psychiatrist A.A. Brill and asks him: “What is the psychological basis for a woman to smoke?”. Brill, who is one of Freud’s pupils and understands the cultural and political tensions of the time, replies: “Cigarettes which are equated with men become torches of freedom.”
The slogan which will change the role of smoking women in American society is born and with it, one of the most influential PR campaigns. Barneys knows what to do and reaches out to his secretary, Bertha Hunt. She will act as the spokesperson of the campaign and forgets about her connection to the American Tobacco Company for a day. Hunt does so, and passes herself off as a women’s rights advocate and drums up comrades-in-arms for the “feminist torches of freedom campaign”. Other women follow her, as well as a multitude of professional photographers and journalists who got a hint from a middle man of Bernays’ that protest in form of civil disobedience will happen at this year’s New York Easter Parade.
It’s the 31stof March, 1929 when a group of stylish, young women walk down fifth avenue, in New York City, smoking cigarettes. The photographers are overwhelmed and take one photo after another.
Women that are smoking in public! At the New York Easter Parade! Unbelievable!
Reporters reach out and ask the leader of the group, Bertha Hunt, about her motive of a women’s smoking march. She gives the short reply that a man, walking with her in the streets, asked her to extinguish her cigarette as it embarrassed him.
“I talked it over with my friends, and we decided it was high time something was done about the situation”.
In their coverage of New York’s Easter Parade, scores of US newspapers report the story of the young women and their ‘torches of freedom’. The New York Times writes on the 1stof April: ‘Group of Girls Puff at Cigarettes as a Gesture of “Freedom”’. The campaign is largely presented as a campaign of emancipated women. Neither Barneys nor American Tobacco are ever mentioned by name in the press reports. They remain as the men that “mold consumer’s minds and suggest their ideas”, to phrase it in Bernays’ own words.
The consequence is a rapid increase in the number of women that smoke cigarettes and with it a staggering rise of profits for cigarette companies. Cigarettes, often connected to men and maleness are now a sign of public disobedience. Smoking, the habit caused by an addiction to nicotine is framed as the conscious decision to emancipate in America’s patriarchic society. The campaign becomes a legendary milestone in the history of public relations and perfectly portrays the working methods of Edward Barneys. Classical advertisers would just have continued to praise the taste of Lucky Strikes instead of taking a step further and dealing with the deep-rooted mechanisms that are responsible for human decisions, as Barneys did. The breaking of a social taboo in favor for a client’s interest made Barneys famous in the world of Public Relations.