By Andrew Parsons
Taboos are tough to overturn in American society. It can take generations, and sometimes court decisions, for Americans to accept such transformative social change as interracial marriage, or to adjust to others as simple as wearing shorts in public. Or maybe all it takes is a really good ad campaign.
That’s what the American Tobacco Co. and a groundbreaking PR genius named Edward Bernays did in the 1920s.
Lighting up back then was thought to be a manly thing, closely associated with American G.I.s on the front lines of World War I. It simply wasn’t considered feminine for the average American woman to smoke. But cigarette companies hated an untapped market. They needed a way to convince women that smoking was socially acceptable. And Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, had plenty of ideas drawing on psychoanalysis rather than magazine spreads.
Bernays enlisted experts in a variety of fields from around the country to offer their input and help him tie smoking into everything from weight loss to fashion. These experts would feed quotes to journalists, and American Tobacco would get free press that seemed trustworthy to the average reader. And it didn’t stop there, says Larry Tye, author of a Bernays biography called The Father of Spin. Tye says Bernays “decided to enlist some of the most extraordinary debutantes in New York society, and got these women to sign up for what they thought was striking a blow, not for smoking cigarettes, but for women’s liberation,” The debutantes marched down Fifth Avenue on Easter Sunday, waving their cigarettes — re-branded as “torches of freedom.” Bernays’ and American Tobacco’s fingerprints were nowhere on the campaign, but it boosted sales and demolished the taboo of American women smoking.
Of course, all of this had consequences. Fifty years later, after lung cancer among women had skyrocketed, Bernays lent his services — pro bono — to the American Lung Association. He claimed that had he known of the health risks of tobacco, he wouldn’t have worked on campaigns to make American women smoke.
But Tye says, not so fast. There’s a fair amount of evidence that Bernays actually knew about the risks of cigarettes even as he promoted them. As early as the 1930s, Bernays told his daughters to flush their mother’s cigarettes down the toilet. And the personal papers Bernays himself donated to the Library of Congress showed he advised American Tobacco on how to cover up medical findings about smoking’s risks during his “torches of freedom” campaign. So why did he insist he didn’t know? Bernays was one of the 20th century’s greatest salesmen. Maybe, he sold himself the lie.
Check out BackStory’s entire interview with Larry Tye on our episode, New & Improved: Advertising in America. You can read more about Bernays in Larry Tye’s book, The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations.