The year was 1928. It had been just eight years since ratification of the 19th amendment had granted women the right to vote. Although the amendment was an important step towards establishing the legal equality of the sexes, many social inequalities remained.
It was against this backdrop that Mr. George Washington Hill found himself with a problem. The firm he presided over, the American Tobacco Company, was missing out on half of its potential market. The culprit? A sexist taboo against women smoking in public and, in many cases, even in their own homes.
To solve this problem Mr. Hill turned to one Edward Bernays, nephew of famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Mr. Hill tasked Bernays with de-stigmatizing female smoking on behalf of the company’s Lucky Strike brand. Bernays was already a vaunted propagandist with several successful PR operations under his belt, including the popularization of bacon and eggs as the quintessential “all-American breakfast”.
Bernays in turn retained the council of Dr. Abraham Brill, one of Freud’s translators and the first psychoanalyst to practice in the United States. Dr. Brill suggested that cigarettes represented “torches of freedom” to women, and that the act of smoking could be seen as an act of independence from the imperious men who would prevent them from doing so. As a good Freudian, he is also alleged to have mused that cigarettes were phallic symbols stimulatory to the erogenous zones of the lips.
Armed with this insight, Bernays’ plan began to take shape. He determined that there were two days that best symbolized freedom in the United States: July 4th (symbolizing political freedom) and Easter (symbolizing spiritual freedom). Bernays thought that the noise of Independence Day - both literal and figurative - would make it difficult for his message to shine through. That left him with the second option, Easter Sunday, as a day to call upon women to reclaim their spiritual freedom with cigarettes.
Bernays supposed that young debutants, keenly aware and resentful of the subjugation of their sex, could be induced to make a public demonstration of their independence. And so he sourced a list of fashionable New York ladies from a friend at Vogue, and sent out a telegraph signed by his secretary Bertha Hunt inviting them to participate in the feminist demonstration. Naturally the telegraph made no mention of American Tobacco, Lucky Strike, or Bernays.
The ladies were to attend crowded Easter services at St. Thomas’s and St. Patrick’s cathedrals, as well as a nearby baptist church attended by John D. Rockefeller. Upon leaving services the women were to light up their cigarettes, join the Easter Sunday parade procession, and march up and down Fifth Avenue chain smoking. Journalists, who had been tipped off, were present - along with Bernays’ own photographers. The women told journalists that they were igniting “torches of freedom” in order to “protest man’s inhumanity to women”.
"About a dozen young women strolled back and forth between St. Thomas’s and St. Patrick’s while the parade was at its peak, ostentatiously smoking cigarettes. Two were asked which brand they favored, and they named it. One of the group explained the cigarettes were ‘torches of freedom’ lighting the way to the day when women would smoke on the street as casually as men."
The next day, the New York Times wrote, “About a dozen young women strolled back and forth between St. Thomas’s and St. Patrick’s while the parade was at its peak, ostentatiously smoking cigarettes. Two were asked which brand they favored, and they named it. One of the group explained the cigarettes were ‘torches of freedom’ lighting the way to the day when women would smoke on the street as casually as men.” Similar reports ran in papers as far-flung as Nebraska and New Mexico.
Within three days scandalous reports were surfacing of women smoking cigarettes publicly everywhere from Union Square in San Francisco to the Boston Commons. Within six weeks, Broadway theaters had begun allowing women into their smoking rooms. The movement, once set in motion, continued to gain momentum.
The Green Ball
By the early 1930's, norms had shifted significantly. Now that women had become comfortable smoking in public, a second issue presented itself: women found Lucky Strike’s signature green packaging unfashionable. Rather than simply change the color of the packaging, the ever-demanding Mr. Hill told Bernays to instead change the color in fashion. With $25,000 from Mr. Hill in hand, Bernays was happy to oblige.
Taking inspiration from his work with the Haute Couture houses of Paris, Bernays decided to put on a socialite ball benefiting charity. Naturally the theme would be green. Bernays persuaded Narcissa Cox Vanderlip, president of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children (and wife to a prominent banker Frank A. Vanderlip), to host the imaginatively named Green Ball. Mrs. Vanderlip had been a leader in the women’s suffrage movement and co-founder of the New York State League of Women Voters. She was influential with just the sort of women Bernays was targeting.
With funding from Bernays, Mrs. Vanderlip reserved the main ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria, distributed invitations, and sent notices to the society columns of every major newspaper. October 25, 1934 would be the party of the season.
The Fashion Magnates
Once the event began to receive coverage in the papers, Bernays called a meeting of textile and clothing company heads at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel, where he lived on the 27th floor. “Gentlemen,” Bernays told them, “green is going to be the color of fashion in the fall.” The gentlemen, whose business necessitated a close following of the society columns, were unsurprised. They agreed to follow green for the season.
Fashion editors were then invited to a Green Fashions Fall Luncheon, orchestrated by Bernays but hosted by the Onondaga Silk Company. The luncheon featured a green menu (serving everything green, from lamb chops with haricots verts to green pistachio mousse glacé). A great effort was made to underscore the intellectual bona fides of the green trend. A talk was given by the head of the Hunter College art department, titled “Green in the Work of Great Artists.” An eminent psychologist spoke on the psychological implication of the color green. By September, the month before the ball was to be held, Vogue’s cover sported a woman in a smart green dress.
“In a setting of splendor and beauty, the Green Ball of Art and Fashion was held last night in the grand ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria, with more than 1,000 persons in attendance. The ball, proceeds of which go to the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, derived its name from the color which dominates its motif and chosen because it is a favorite color of the season.”
The day after the event, on October 26, 1934, the Times reported, “In a setting of splendor and beauty, the Green Ball of Art and Fashion was held last night in the grand ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria, with more than 1,000 persons in attendance. The ball, proceeds of which go to the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, derived its name from the color which dominates its motif and chosen because it is a favorite color of the season.” Lucky Strike continued to enjoy this fashionable association until shortages caused by World War II made it difficult to obtain the materials needed to dye the packaging its signature green.
The Ad Campaign
Throughout this period, American Tobacco kept up a continuous barrage of female-focused Lucky Strike advertisements. Ads featuring women proclaiming that “An ancient prejudice has been removed,” and encouraged them to “Reach for a lucky instead of a sweet.” Bernays in turn supported the ad campaign by sourcing a steady stream of experts - from dance instructors to photographers - to reinforce the idea that a slim figure was best, and that cigarettes were the best way to achieve it.
In this way, Lucky Strike and Edward Bernays cleared a path for tobacco companies to market directly to women for the first time. Feminist echos of Bernays’ torches of freedom would continue to crop up even decades later, when ad agency Leo Burnett launched Virginia Slims - the first cigarette “for women only” - with the tagline, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” But why was Bernays successful?
Whether as a consumer or an author of culture, it is helpful to deconstruct the elements that made Bernays' campaign successful. The six key elements - forming the acronym SPREAD - are as follows:
Simple to remember and to share.
Bernays never tried to communicate too much at a time. The idea of cigarettes as “torches of freedom” was certainly simple, if controversial. Similarly, the idea that green is fashionable is very straightforward.
Plausible to its intended audience.
Thanks to Bernays’ recruitment of feminist influencers, experts, and the media, his message was plausible. He rarely spoke as the PR man for American Tobacco, instead using proxies who were considered authorities by his audience.
Relatable to common lived experience.
Bernays’ campaigns for American Tobacco unfolded in an era when virtually all American women experienced overt sexism and exclusion on a daily basis. The experience of "man's inhumanity to women" (as Bernays put it) was universal to his audience.
Bernays tapped directly into women’s deeply held frustrations at the social inequality that they were forced to confront every day, offering to make them feel powerful. The women Bernays appealed to saw themselves as the ideological successors of the suffragette movement from the previous decade, a natural next step of an unfolding national drama. Bernays crafted his message to align with their prior ideological commitments and their personal hero’s journey. At the same time, the corresponding ad campaign magnified women’s latent insecurities about their body image while offering them a solution.
The call to action was clear, simple, and readily accessible. Smoke in public. The practical barriers to executing the action were very low and, once a critical mass of women adopted the practice, the social-emotional barriers dissipated as well.
Duplicable with low effort and high fidelity.
By tapping into national news outlets, Bernays was able to spread his message around the country in a matter of days with a high degree of fidelity. Even without further support from the big guns of the American Tobacco ad machine, the message was effectively duplicated every time young and independent modeled public smoking to other women. Combined with a strident ad campaign, this message was inescapably clear.
Lucky Strike's Torches of Freedom campaign, while controversial, is one of the earliest and most sophisticated multi-channel mass persuasion campaigns of the modern American era. Whatever the moral implications of the campaign, the masterful combination of media relations, advertising, and influencer marketing is instructive to the modern strategist.