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The year is 1929 and Edward Bernays, the father of public relations, has just launched a manipulative campaign that took a growing movement of female liberation and twisted it to use and exploit women in a whole new way.
An incredibly influential man in his time, Bernays was the go-to guy for all the big corporations when they needed a new way to sell their product and expand their sales. The nephew of Sigmund Freud, Bernays had studied his uncle’s psychology and used what he learned about the human psyche to manipulate minds and emotions in order to sell products.
Bernays knew how to tap into that vulnerable part of the mind which desires to be more, have more, want more. Now, during the Easter Sunday Parade of 1929, he is ready to help spark a movement which will result in enormous profit for big tobacco—removing the stigma of women smoking.
Before that time it was not socially acceptable for women to smoke cigarettes. It was seen as inappropriate and the few women who did smoke would do so in the privacy of their homes. Some states even passed laws prohibiting women from smoking. The tobacco companies knew they were missing out on a large portion of the market due to this double standard, so they went to Bernays to ask him to think up a way to reverse this stigma.
Bernays sought the advice of a psychoanalyst, who told him cigarettes were “a symbol of the penis and male sexual power” and that if he was able to connect them with the concept of challenging male power than women would smoke. Bernays concluded, based on this and his uncle’s theory of ‘penis envy’, that women would readily take to smoking because the cigarettes would represent the acquisition of their own ‘penis’. He realized if he marketed the idea as part of the suffragette movement and equality with men, then women would embrace tobacco.
Bernays, working for the president of the American Tobacco Company, set to work on his plan. He hired a group of women to march in the New York Easter Parade which had thousands of attendees. When he gave the signal, the women would simultaneously reveal the cigarettes hidden in their clothing and light them, smoking while marching in the parade. They called their cigarettes “Torches of Freedom”, a manipulative phrase Bernays developed which connected the idea of freedom and Lady Liberty to the actions and called on nostalgia and the notion of equality to convince those who supported the women in their movement to support this action. After all, it was all about equality, right?
Bertha Hunt, Bernays’s secretary, led the group and even lied to the press, claiming the protest had been her idea, sparked by a demand to extinguish her cigarette some days before. Reporters were present in numbers, tipped off anonymously (by Bernays) prior to the event to ensure large publicity and wide coverage.
The protest was a shocking sight for the time, and Bernays needed to make sure it reached as many viewers as possible in order to have the most effective impact. He hired photographers to take photos of the young women, so the images could be published around the world. To the outside viewer, this appeared an earnest grassroots movement to further progress women’s rights and equality. The reality was a sinister, manipulative campaign orchestrated by a man with no intentions of contributing to the women’s liberation movement—only to tobacco’s profits.
When the images were released, the campaign became a sensation and the next day it was being talked about across the entire country and world. Feminists embraced the idea as another way to fight sex taboos, and progress towards equality.
Torches of Freedom—the catchy phrase invented to sell the idea, became a motto for women smokers. The campaign was a success, and cigarette sales for women increased 12% that year alone, and continued to swiftly rise.
Advertisements ran with Bernays’s angle—pushing the image of women smokers as strong, powerful, independent, classy and attractive. Cigarettes could help you lose weight, keep your figure and take the place of sweets. They made you more attractive and gave you greater power over your own life. The woman who smoked cigarettes was marketed as desirable.
Slogans emerged such as, “You’ve come a long way, baby!” which played on the idea that smoking was an advancement of women’s rights. Women of that era embraced the campaign, believing it to be a legitimate, women initiated stance against inequality and double standards. They never had a clue it had been launched by a man to make money for tobacco business.
Big tobacco knew all they had to do was reverse the stigma, and profits would follow. The adverse effects of nicotine in those days were hardly known, and much less so taken seriously.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports most smokers are dependent on nicotine, and with the high rate of addiction to cigarettes, it didn’t take much for a whole new realm of buyers to open up once women got a taste. In 2011, the CDC reported nicotine dependance is the most common form of chemical dependance in the United States.
Whether or not women would have begun smoking cigarettes without his influence, Bernays played a crucial role in expediting the process. He used manipulation and exploited the suffragette movement to meet his ends. He took pride in what he did, and he made himself a very wealthy man being successful at “manufacturing consent”, as he called it. These days, the CDC reports an estimated 173,940 women in the United States are killed annually by cigarette smoking.
Cigarette companies continued to use the slogan “Torches of Freedom” all the way through the 1990’s. Today, advertisements and media continue to portray smoking as glamorous, attractive, and associated with freedom. The reality is actually the opposite. There is nothing glamorous or attractive about the negative health effects of smoking—such as death, heart disease, lung disease, stroke and cancer, among others. As for freedom? There’s no freedom in an addiction. When your body is physically dependent on a chemical substance to the point where you begin to need rather than want it, and suffer withdrawal symptoms when you don’t have it–you have lost freedom. The paradox is women were sold cigarettes on the idea of independence—and instead female smokers found themselves with a dependance.
There’s nothing progressive about that.