Torches for Freedom: Selling Cigarettes to Women
In 1928 George Washington Hill, head of the American Tobacco Company, hired public relations specialist Edward Bernays to help him expand the market for cigarettes. Tobacco use among men had soared after the First World War, during which cigarettes had been included in soldiers’ rations, but it was still considered taboo for women. Hill wanted to change that. “If I can crack that market,” he told Bernays, “it will be like opening a new gold mine right in our front yard.”
Bernays was equal to the challenge. He’d made his name during the War when he worked with journalist Walter Lippmann to sway public opinion and bring the United States into the conflict with Germany, despite the German ancestry of many Americans.His first campaign for American Tobacco was a series of print advertisements that played on women’s self-esteem by presenting cigarettes as a dieting aid, such as the classic, “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.” The message was so successful that to this day there is a widespread belief, especially among young women, that smoking is somehow good for your figure, but Bernays wanted to go even further and make smoking respectable for women. Leveraging the suffrage movement that had earned women the right to vote in 1920, he arranged for a small group of elegant young women to march in the 1929 Easter Parade in New York while smoking cigarettes. Leaving nothing to chance, he also tipped off the press, which ran photographs of the event along with opinions such as those of Miss Bertha Hunt, who noted that, “I hope that we have started something and that these torches for freedom… will smash the discriminatory taboo on cigarettes for women and that our sex will go on breaking down all discriminations.” Smoking was suddenly a way to strike a blow for women’s emancipation, and even the resulting controversy was good publicity. Within a decade more than 20% of women smoked cigarettes, and Lucky Strike was their brand of choice.
Amazingly, the same approach worked a second time in the late 1960s. By this time smoking had been implicated in the rise in lung disease, cigarette manufacturers were being forced to publish the tar and nicotine content of their products, and the smoking habit, especially among women, was on the decline. “Torches for Freedom” was dusted off and became the famous, “You’ve come a long way, baby” campaign for the Virginia Slims brand. “It took Marjorie Taylor 25 years to get up the courage to smoke in front of her husband,” we are told. “It took 25 seconds for Mr. Taylor to pack his wife’s bags.” The campaign was so successful that many epidemiologists blame it for the rise in lung cancer rates among women now in their 60s and 70s.
In 2014 the tobacco industry is besieged by lawsuits and regulation, not to mention restrictions on advertising, but a new “nicotine delivery system” has arrived, as full of promise as the “no throat irritation” Luckies of the 1920s. And once again the product is being marketed to women as a symbol of emancipation. In the television commercial shown, model and television host Jenny McCarthy ends a pitch for electronic cigarettes with the oddly familiar line, “Finally with Blu, I took back my freedom.”
What is fascinating about all of these messages, their intentions apart, is the way in which they work. Smoking is represented as a rite of passage for women, a useful notion from a marketing point of view because it is rather unpleasant to actually start smoking. This “notion” looks like a valid opinion, but it is really fiction masquerading as fact, what has come to be known as a factoid. Edward Bernays was an expert at manufacturing opinions. He was the nephew of Sigmund Freud, and a keen student of his uncle’s work in psychoanalysis. He wrote, in one of his many books about advertising and public relations: “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.” Bernays successfully promoted bacon and bananas as components of the all-American diet, put Dixie cups at drinking fountains and put fluorine in the water that came from them. He was linked to propaganda that led to the overthrow of Jacob Guzman, the President of Guatemala, in 1954, and his techniques were famously employed by Josef Goebbels to propagandize the rise of the Nazi party in 1930s Germany, though not with his approval.
In later life Bernays actually came to support anti-smoking efforts, and indulged his passion for ballroom dancing until he was well into his nineties. He died at the age of 103, and was named by Life magazine as one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th Century. His methods of persuasion are widely used in politics as well as in business, and the tobacco industry has now turned its sights on the Third World.
Bernays above all recognized the peculiar power of mediated experience, that which we learn through television, or radio, or newspapers, or Facebook, and one of his more famous quotes can also stand as a warning: “People are rarely aware of the real reasons which motivate their actions.”
Or, in the words of Scoop Nisker, a radio commentator for KSAN San Francisco in the 1970s, “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.”
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