Angela Natividad's Live & Uncensored!

26 January 2010

Debutantes, Light Up: The Very First Flashmob?

Following the release of AdVerve's "Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms" episode, a PR guy sent me the above Chesterfield ad from the 1930s.

It speaks to the empowerment women felt when they lit up a smoke -- repurcussions of a marketing campaign I mentioned in passing during the podcast, when, around the time of woman's suffrage, a tobacco company encouraged a number of wealthy debutantes to light up on the streets at exactly the same time.

That's pretty much all I knew about the effort, but after seeing the Chesterfield ad I decided to look it up. Here's what I found:

It was George Washington Hill, president of the American Tobacco Company, who recognised that an important part of his market was not being tapped into, and he hired [Freud's nephew Edward Bernays] to expand the sales of his Lucky Strike cigarettes to women.
Bernays applied his talent to the problem. Recognising that women were still riding high on the suffrage movement, Bernays used this as the basis for his campaign. He consulted Dr A A Brill, a leading New York psychoanalyst, to find out the psychological basis for women's smoking. Brill said that cigarettes were equated subconsciously with penises, which women were envious of.
He gave Bernays the idea that, if he could connect cigarettes with the idea of challenging male power, smoking in public could be sold to women, who would then have their own penises. So he came up with an idea for presenting cigarettes as 'torches of freedom'.

Bernays proceeded to stage an event at the annual Easter Day Parade, held in New York and attracting thousands, to introduce this totally irrational notion to American womanhood and it caused a national stir. He got a group of rich debutantes to agree to hide cigarettes in their clothing and, at a given signal, light up together.
He then informed the press this would happen and of course photographers were present in droves and stories appeared in newspapers throughout America.
- Adam Curtis, "A Seething Mass of Desires: Freud's Hold Over History"
This all went down in the mid-1920s; thereafter, Bernays was able to persuade female film stars to light up -- resulting in the adoption of cigarettes among US women in the millions. The big takeaway: in one fell swoop, smoking was successfully linked to "feelings of independence, power and freedom" among those that so needed it.

Does this not astound and amaze? And doesn't the image of smug untouchable rich girls on the street puff-puffing in tandem totally blow away this nonsense? (Not endorsing one or the other; just sayin'.)

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