Fake News

Light a Torch for Freedom!

New attitudes toward women and smoking had helped sell more cigarettes in the period after the first world war. But for the head of American Tobacco Company, George Washington Hill,  those gains were not enough. He saw the female audience as "a gold mine right in our front yard" which they were not properly exploiting due to some (Brandt 82) Lingering stigmas against women smoking in public seemed and barrier to sales, and Hill wanted to find ways to remove that stigma and encourage more women to smoke in restaurants or on the street. Hill believed women would smoke more if they could smoke everywhere:

How can we get women to smoke on the street? They're smoking indoors. But damn it, if they spend half the time outdoors and we can get 'em to smoke outdoors, we'll damn near double our female market. (Brandt 83)

Hill hired a leader in the emerging field of public relations and marketing, Edward Bernays. During World War I, Bernays worked for the Committee on Public Information where he developed his views on creating effective propaganda. A nephew of Freud, Bernays sought to use psychology to shape public opinion. He believed that only using advertising was not a good enough tactic--people needed to believe that they totally exercised free choice in deciding to smoke, and should feel they came to the decision on their own without influence. (Brandt 87). Bernays genius lay in seeing that flapper society was not only about clothes and hairstyles, but also about women wanting more freedom and equality. Cigarettes could be seen as part of this. 

Girls begin smoking to demonstrate that they are strictly modern and up-to-date in their views and habits of life. Girls, too, make the point that they have as good a right to smoke as have men. (Benson 193)

Bernays recognized that he could exploit the already existing relationship between a desire to be equal and a desire to smoke, pushing the right to smoke in public for women part of the push for equality.  Wishing to establish this more widely in the minds of women without overtly advertising, he devised a staged "news" event to have women at the annual New York City Easter Parade light up Lucky Strikes.. He enlisted the help of a committed feminist, Ruth Hale, who invited women to come to the parade to smoke, urging:

Light another torch of freedom!    
Fight another sex taboo. 
(Brandt 85)

Bernays and Hale successfully recruited a few prominent women to appear in the parade smoking.



The New York Times did cover the parade and included a mention of the women smoking, They 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. 

Lucky Strikes Cigarettes emphasized the event in advertising and celebrated the freedom of women to smoke anywhere.

The theme of equality for women was revisited in the Virginia Slims advertising of the 1965's-1980's.

While it is not possible to look back and measure how successful (or not) advertising and publicity campaigns were, it is clear that cigarette consumption took off after the 1920's, largely through increased sales to women. Interviews conducted by advertisers to judge the effectiveness of the Virginia Slims advertising demonstrates just how effective that advertising was embedding in women's minds that cigarettes were a signal of a strong, independent and sexy woman. "Sort of represent the type of person I think I am: A liberated, contemporary female." (at 0.35 minutes). Another pointed out that the "Woman is no longer like the way they had her in the olden times with the long dresses...now they show her sexy and like with the cigarette. She's like alive now." (at 8:20).

In his memoir, Bernays claimed the torches of freedom stunt was a hugely successful and seminal event in using a staged event to influence behavior. Modern historians have started to question how successful it truly was, or if the story is an example of Bernay's genius for creating fake news about the success of the stunt (Murphree 258-281).

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