Edward Bernays set out to experiment with the minds of the popular classes. His most dramatic experiment was to persuade women to smoke.
At that time (1920s), there was a taboo against women smoking and one of his early clients George Hill, the President of the American Tobacco corporation asked Bernays to find a way of breaking it.
As Bernays descirbed, Hill told him that tobacco industry was losing half of the market, because men have invoked a taboo against women smoking in public. Then he asked him if he could do anything about it.
Bernays said he would think about it and asked the permission to see a psychoanalyst to find out what cigarettes mean to women. So he called up Dr. Brille. A.A. Brille was the leading psychoanalyst in New York at the time and one of the first psychoanalysts in America. And for a large fee, he told Bernays that cigarettes were a symbol of the penis and of male sexual power. He told Bernays that if he could find a way to connect cigarettes with the idea of challenging male power then women would smoke, because then they would have their own penises.
Every year New York held an Easter day parade to which thousands came. And Bernays decided to stage an event there. He persuaded a group of rich debutants to hide cigarettes under their clothes.
Then, they should join the parade and at a given signal from him they were to light up the cigarettes dramatically. Bernays then informed the press that he had heard that a group of suffragettes were preparing to protest by lighting up what they called torches of freedom.
He knew this would be an outcry, and he knew that all of the photographers would be there to capture this moment so he was ready with a phrase which was “torches of freedom”.
So here you have a symbol, women, young women, debutantes, smoking a cigarette in public with a phrase that means anybody who believes in this kind of equality pretty much has to support them in the ensuing debate about this, because ... “torches of freedom”.
If one think about it, what's on all American coins? it's liberty, she's holding up the torch. And so all of this is there together, there's emotion, there's memory and there's a rational phrase, even knowing it's using a lot of emotionall, it's a phrase that works in a rational sense.
The next day this was not just in all the New York papers it was across the United States and around the world. And from that point forward the sale of cigarettes to woman began to rise.
What Bernays had created was the idea that if a woman smoked it made her more powerful and independent. An idea that still persists today. It made him realize that it was possible to persuade people to behave irrationally if you link products to their emotional desires and feelings. The idea that smoking actually made women freer, was completely irrational. But it made them feel more independent. It meant that irrelevant objects could become powerful emotional symbols of how you wanted to be seen by others.