Picture this. On the crowded streets of one of the world’s busiest cities, a group of influential young people does something carefully planned but also unexpected by the crowds around them. Behind-the-scenes organizers have worked social networks and even mainstream media to maximize coverage, and the perfectly choreographed event draws the attention of onlookers. Some are shocked. Some are delighted. But it becomes apparent that the event was staged for more than just shock value or entertainment. Some see it as the start of a social movement.

No, this isn’t a reference to “Frozen Grand Central” in early 2008, when 207 agents of the group Improv Everywhere stopped in their tracks and froze in place for five minutes in the midst of Grand Central Station, later garnering more than 30 million YouTube hits. It’s also not about the ‘Worldwide Pillowfight Day’ flash mobs organized a few months later for fun and entertainment in dozens of cities from Atlanta to Zurich. Neither is it part of the infamous Facebook-driven, iPod-wearing, disco-dancing mob that shut down a London train station in 2009.

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Long before carefully orchestrated surprise street events were termed ‘flash mobs,’ Edward Bernays organized the Torches of Freedom event as part of a sophisticated persuasive campaign. How did Bernays link smoking a cigarette with women’s fight for equality?

Instead, the event described was the “Torches of Freedom” march; the ‘influentials’ were New York debutantes; and the site was an Easter parade on Fifth Avenue in New York. The date, however, was 1930 and the man behind the scenes was Edward Bernays. Bernays competes with Ivy Lee for the legacy of being known as the father of public relations. Oh, and about those “torches of freedom,” they were cigarettes marketed to women.

Bernays coordinated the Torches of Freedom event on behalf of his client George Washington Hill, president of the American Tobacco Company. Here is how Bernays recalls the project in his memoir Biography of an Idea:

“Hill called me in. “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. Do something. Act!”

“There’s a taboo against such smoking,” I said. “Let me consult an expert, Dr. A.A. Brill, the psychoanalyst. He might give me the psychological basis for a woman’s desire to smoke, and maybe this will help me.”

“What will it cost?”

“I suppose just a consultation fee.”

“Shoot,” said Hill.

(Bernays was no stranger to psychoanalysis. His uncle was Sigmund Freud.)

Brill explained to me: “Some women regard cigarettes as symbols of freedom,” he told me. “Smoking is a sublimation of oral eroticism; holding a cigarette in the mouth excites the oral zone. It is perfectly normal for women to want to smoke cigarettes… But today the emancipation of women has suppressed many of their feminine desires… Feminine traits are masked. Cigarettes, which are equated with men, become torches of freedom.”

“In this last statement I found a way to help break the taboo against women smoking in public. Why not a parade of women lighting torches of freedom – smoking cigarettes?”

Bernays called friends at Vogue magazine to get a list of debutantes. Then he had his secretary, Bertha Hunt, sign and send a personalized telegram to each one. Think direct-messaging; 1930’s style:

“IN THE INTERESTS OF EQUALITY OF THE SEXES AND TO FIGHT ANOTHER SEX TABOO I AND OTHER YOUNG WOMEN WILL LIGHT ANOTHER TORCH OF FREEDOM BY SMOKING CIGARETTES WHILE STROLLING ON FIFTH AVENUE EASTER SUNDAY. WE ARE DOING THIS TO COMBAT THE SILLY PREJUDICE THAT THE CIGARETTE IS SUITABLE FOR THE HOME, THE RESTAURANT, THE TAXICAB, THE THEATER LOBBY, BUT NEVER NO NEVER FOR THE SIDEWALK. WOMEN SMOKERS AND THEIR ESCORTS WILL STROLL FROM FORTY-EIGHTH STREET TO FIFTY-FOURTH STREET ON FIFTH AVENUE BETWEEN ELEVEN-THIRTY AND ONE O’CLOCK.”

It worked. Bernays reported that the event made front-page news in both photos and text and opened editorial debates in the weeks that followed in publications from coast to coast. As evidence of his success he cited newspaper reports in Massachusetts, Michigan, California, and West Virginia that women were smoking on the streets. “Age-old customs, I learned, could be broken down by a dramatic appeal, disseminated by the network of media.” While Bernays’ strategy was mostly intuitive and his reasoning was mostly theoretical, the case illustrates the power of public relations tactics as powerful tools for persuasion.

Edward Bernays. Biography of an Idea: Memoirs of Public Relations Counsel Edward L. Bernays (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965), 386.
Bernays, 387.
Bernays, 387.