It was the Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age. It was a time of great social change. After decades upon decades of fighting women had finally gotten the vote, but they still faced discrimination elsewhere. Much had changed, but much had stayed the same.
One man, George Washington Hill, president of American Tobacco, was worried about one social norm which had remained in place: it was illegal for women to smoke outside. In 1922, for instance, there was a famous incident where a woman was arrested in New York City for daring to light a cigarette on the street.
Hill would not be considered much of a feminist, but he knew when he was not reaching all the customers he could. Women had a desire to smoke, but were only allowed to smoke in the privacy of their own homes.
Thus it was that in 1928 George Washington Hill hired Eddie Bernays to expand his customer base for Lucky Strike cigarretes, particularly among women. Bernays hired a psychologist by the name of A.A. Brill, to find out what it was that drew women to smoking.
Brill informed Bernays that in his view, cigarettes for women were a form of liberation, a sign of the new, free woman. Cigarettes were seen as something for men, and were a phallic symbol, for women then smoking was a sign of new feminine power as they took on roles which had traditionally been for men elsewhere: the vote they had just achieved, taking on men’s jobs, etc. From this Bernays crafted his idea for the “Torches of Freedom” campaign.
Torches of Freedom
March 31, 1929. It was a big day in New York City, the day of the Easter Parade. A woman by the name of Bertha Hunt and several other women stepped into a crowd of people all wearing their Sunday best and lit cigarettes, at that time not only completely socially unacceptable.
It just so happened that the press was there as Hunt and her friends were lighting up. Miss Hunt began explaining to the press how she had been told to extinguish her cigarette the other day, and how she had devised the idea of lighting up with her friends at the parade as a protest. The cigarettes were “torches of freedom,” a new step in the march towards equality of the sexes.
News of the event spread like wildfire, and it was not long before women everywhere were lighting up in the street.
The event, of course, was not a spontaneous reaction to discrimination against women smokers in public, it was a carefully crafted piece of theater designed by Eddie Bernays to fulfill his promise to American Tobacco to increase sales of Lucky Strike cigarettes.
Bertha Hunt was Bernays’s secretary. The press had been alerted to the event by Benays himself, although of course anonymously. The entire affair had been planned completely as a marketing campaign, but that did not make it any less impactful. It succeeded in breaking down the walls of women smoking in public, and of course made American Tobacco a lot of money.
The “Torches of Freedom” campaign is now one of the most famous episodes in the history of marketing and public relations. For many Bernays is considered the founder of the entire field of public relations, noted for his ability to take the pulse of the times and turn it into a public relations coup for whatever business he happened to be representing at the time.