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The Father of PR, and How He Exploited A Feminist Movement to Get Women Smoking

By Robert Latimer - Copy Writes Copy

Can we admire genius even if we disagree with what it achieved?


As a copywriter and advertising geek, I’m always drawn to the how before the what.


Forget what the product is, or if it’s bad for the consumer - just tell me how someone got millions of people to buy it!


One such case was the ‘Torches of Freedom’ campaign in 1929, where Edward Bernays encouraged women to smoke in public, despite the act being ridiculed by society.


But, before getting into that, a little back story…


Edward Louis Bernays, considered by many as ‘the father of public relations’, was born in Vienna in 1891 to the sister of Sigmund Freud.


After a reasonably good education, he eventually gained a degree in agriculture from Cornell University, but decided to choose a career in journalism instead.


His journalistic encounters soon took him into the world of theatre, where he became a theatre press agent, and got to learn and perfect PR techniques that would forge the path of his future.


These ‘techniques’, along with some of Freuds teachings, then led to him to working on advertising campaigns such as convincing the American public that eggs and bacon was the ‘true’ all-American breakfast…


…and convincing them that disposable cups were the ONLY hygienic cups, by using imagery of a regular cup overflowing with diseased genitalia!

These notable skills also quickly got him onto the books of some of Americas biggest corporations, including the likes of General Electric, Proctor & Gamble, and famously the UFC (United Fruit Company), a company he helped promote bananas by linking them to good health, and some of the popular celebs of the day…


...and, to create a campaign to discredit Guatemalan government over a period years, helping the CIA to orchestrate a coup d'état in 1954.

So, to return to my opening question ‘can we admire genius even if we disagree with what it achieved?’ Yes, of course we can, and Bernays genius is the perfect example.


This guy applied his extraordinary PR abilities to all types of causes, some good, like helping non-profit organisations like the New York Infirmary for Women and Children…


…and some not so good, like helping American Tobacco promote the idea that Lucky Strike Cigarettes were ‘good for your voice’, and that smoking cigarettes was ‘better than eating’!


But, at the heart of it all was the brain of a phenomenal ad man (although Bernays was adamant that what he did wasn’t the same as advertising), exploiting the human condition using ‘crowd psychology’ and ‘Uncle’ Sigmund’s teachings on psychoanalysis, to exert control over the masses to achieve astonishing results, whether they sit well with you or not.


And, perhaps one of the most famous of Bernays genius PR/advertising campaigns, was the ‘Torches of Freedom’ campaign in 1929 - a campaign designed to change the perception of women who smoked, and to get more women smoking.


Prior to this period (right back to the 17th century) women smoking was seen as ‘corrupt and immoral’, something ‘fallen women’ did, not your average right-thinking woman on the street.


Even films at the time rarely showed women smoking, unless those women were of ‘discreditable’ character.

And, in some American states, the act of women smoking, particularly in public, was made illegal, seeing one woman jailed for 30 days, and accused of ‘putting her children’s morals at risk’.


Love or loathe smoking, this was a clear example of discrimination against women, and one that meant George Washington Hill, President of the American Tobacco Company at the time, was unable to tap into a potentially huge market.


‘It will be like opening a goldmine right in your front yard,’ he was recorded as saying, but to open that ‘gold mine’ would take the brains of a certain Edward Bernays.


Bernays revelled in the challenge, with his first goal to get rid of the social taboo of women smoking in public.


To do this he took advice from renowned psychoanalyst, A.A. Brill, who told him that women had a normal ‘feminine desire’ to smoke due to their ‘oral fixation’…


…a theory derived from Freuds suggestion that weening an ‘infant’ too young, or over-feeding an infant, leads to the adult becoming obsessed by oral stimulation.


Brill expanded on this theory basically saying that women’s equality, and their rights to do as men do in work and at home, had ‘masked’ their natural feminine desires.


Therefore, a woman smoking cigarettes was a way to re-engage with a feminine desire forced to be hidden by men, and the cigarettes they smoked were like ‘Torches of Freedom’.

Bernays then took Brills distorted analysis, and paid a group of carefully selected, ‘good-looking’ women to march in the New York Easter Parade smoking cigarettes.


Along with the women, Bernays also hired a group of elite photographers, who would take the best pictures of the women, photos of which he could then distribute to various publications around the world.


Talk of the upcoming event soon filtered across to women’s rights journalist and founder of the Lucy Stone League, Ruth Hale, who called on women to join the march and chant the words ‘Women! Light another torch of freedom! Fight another sex taboo!’


As you can probably guess, the campaign was an absolute success, and, over the course of the next 6 years increased the amount of cigarettes women bought from 5% to 18.1%, a figure that peaked at 33.3% in 1965.


To conclude


Edward Bernays once said -


“We are dominated by the relatively small number of persons who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”


I think it's safe to say, Edward Bernays was one of the wire pullers.


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