Nearly a decade after winning the vote, American women took to the streets in 1929 to march against the patriarchy in a brilliant New York PR stunt focused around … smoking? That’s right, in the innocent days before the first Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health, public relations industry godfather Edward Bernays hatched an ingenious plan. His goal was to build competitive advantage for the American Tobacco Company’s Lucky Strike brand. Bernays and his client saw an untapped market. In the 20s, smoking cigarettes was a man’s pastime. (And sadly, the health risks wouldn’t be widely known for another 30 years.)
In the Broadway theaters of New York City, people would smoke during intermissions in special rooms under the orchestra. That is, men would smoke, since the League of Theaters prohibited women from lighting up.
Bernays sought advice from influential psychoanalyst Dr. Abraham Brill, a buddy of his uncle, Sigmund Freud. (Yes, even back then; it was all about who you know.) For the low fee of $125, Brill offered expert counsel: “They (cigarettes) titillate the erogenous zone of the lips.” Brill suggested that females might want to light up to reject the taboo against the fair sex smoking. He called cigarettes “torches of freedom” for women.
Bernays knew a good line when he heard it. He enlisted New York debutantes and their boyfriends to march in the Easter parade down Fifth Avenue while smoking. In one of the first ever media stunts, Bernays alerted the press that the protests would be happening and instructed the women to tell their stories to the major outlets of the time: newsreels, newspapers, and the three press associations.
Not only did the demonstration garner a front page story in the New York Times, but a mere three days later, American newspapers were reporting that women were smoking in the public squares in several major cities, including Boston and San Francisco. Weeks later, the ban of women smoking in Broadway theaters was lifted.
Bernays “invented” modern PR by using psychology and media savvy to influence public opinion. He had started his career doing propaganda work for the U.S. government during World War I. Later, he would coin the term “public relations.”
The “torches of freedom” episode is an early example of the co-opting of a social movement for commercial purposes. But was it ethical? Clearly, Bernays used the growing women’s equality movement to sell cigarettes. But if the initiative did in fact promote women’s rights (even the dubious privilege of smoking) by fighting a double standard of behavior, then does it matter if a company profited? If the demonstration had been a true grassroots protest instead of a staged event for cameras, the American Tobacco Company would also have profited. But Bernays’ intent was expressly commercial, and he was a man attempting to dictate the path of women’s issues. The ethics are muddy.
Today’s PR professionals are a little embarrassed by Edward Bernays and his propaganda stunts, but – aside from the toxic image the cigarette industry later took on – are modern campaigns really that different? For International Women’s Day, it’s instructive to look at the famous Dove-sponsored Campaign for Real Beauty, launched in 2004. In some ways it is a similar co-opting of a cultural moment. Unilever’s Dove aims to sell beauty products, and it uses a powerful social issue to position its brand. Its PR agency studied women’s self-image and attitudes toward their own bodies to identify a legitimate concern. Perhaps one reason for the campaign’s success and its longevity is the need to broaden our definition of female beauty – a need that persists today.
Today, a company can be acting out of authentic social concern while simultaneously profiting from those concerns. Fast Company’s sixth-ranked World’s Most Innovative Company for 2017, Patagonia, does exactly that by folding its social responsibility into its mission.
What makes the difference between true social commitment and exploitation? A company’s authentic intentions. An insincere or shallow corporate social responsibility program is usually easy to spot, and the public will call BS. When Pepsi produced an ad that was seemingly about the black lives matter movement it was roundly criticized. The ad, which depicted Kendall Jenner offering a Pepsi to a central-casting police officer, reeked of inauthenticity, and the brand promptly did the right thing in pulling it.
If Edward Bernays were working today, he’d need to grapple with our digital news cycle, consumer skepticism, and our collective craving for true engagement. Today’s corporate communications campaigns are more likely to tilt toward transparency, responsible stewardship, and authenticity. Those have to be counted as steps in the right direction.