During the twenties, it was illegal for women to smoke outside. They had the desire to smoke, but were forced to do so in their own homes. Meanwhile, Lucky Strike cigarettes wanted to expand their customer base, especially among women. They hired the help of Edward Bernays, who wondered what drew women to smoking in the first place.
Bernays discovered that the best way to draw more women in would be to associate smoking with empowerment. During a time where women faced discrimination, cigarettes could become a “form of liberation” for them, according to Bernays. This led him to create the Torches of Freedom campaign.
The campaign has become a landmark in public relations, albeit with concerning ethical aspects. Bernays hired women to smoke cigarettes during the 1929 Easter parade in New York City. The women acted as though they had planned it themselves, when they were in fact paid to do so.
It was a marketing and public relations strategy disguised as a protest for cigarettes and women. Bernays anonymously informed the media, and within no time, numerous news stories and photos of the women were published. Cigarette sales tripled that year.
With today’s knowledge about the health risks linked to tobacco, the ethical problems with Bernays’ campaign are clear. Although he did what the tobacco company asked of him, he was unaware of the health risks involved. However, he attached a new meaning to cigarettes by making it appear attractive, through the hiring of young, beautiful women to come together and make a statement.
For these reasons, Bernays’ campaign can be seen as propaganda. Bernays tapped in to the emotions and environments of women during that time. With this “fake” protest, Bernays created a false reality that manipulated women into buying cigarettes, making the campaign unethical.
— Samantha Liacos