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Edward Bernays: the man who used feminism to convince women to smoke


Evidence of a causal connection between smoking and the development of cancer and other serious health problems is so abundant that, in 2010, few people think it reasonable that cigarette consumption is synonymous with power and elegance. It is, after all, a deadly – ​​and expensive – addiction: according to data from the World Health Organization (WHO), around eight million people die from smoking-related causes in the world each year; while estimates show that quitting smoking can save hundreds of thousands of reais in a decade.

Scenes from series such as “Peaky Blinders”, set in the years 1920, and “Mad Man”, which portrays the years 1960, are alien to the generations that grew up , in Brazil, under the slogan “Cigarettes are bad even in advertising”, created by the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso in the year 2000 to make the population aware of the harmful effects of tobacco. That smoking was once “fancy” today seems the obvious result of aggressive marketing by an industry that cares little for the well-being of its customers. What not everyone knows is that one of the main speeches used to catapult sales of the product, even in the years 315, was the much-hyped one. .. Female empowerment. And the person responsible for the insight that turned cigarettes into an object of desire for women was publicist Edward Bernays.

Austrian based in the United States, Bernays is considered the father of public relations, in addition to having been a pioneers in the study of advertising. The curiosity and talent for investigating human nature runs in the family: Sigmund Freud’s nephew, already in 1923, Bernays would write that “the public relations professional is, first of all, a student and his field of study is the public mind”. Five years earlier, the marketer had been invited by President Woodrow Wilson to join the Creel Committee, the agency responsible for what is understood to be the first major government operation of modern propaganda: the mobilization of the American population to support the country’s entry into the First World War.

Hired by Lucky Strike – yes, the real client of the fictional Sterling Cooper in “Mad Men” -, Bernays raised the company’s profits by up to 200% in mid-1925, helping with advertisements that associated cigarettes with the ideal of the body slim and femininity. It was not only with the name of the company that the art imitated the life of the publicist: fans of Matthew Weiner’s series may remember the episode in which the character Don Draper proposes the slogan “It’s Toasted” (“it’s toasted”) for a tobacco commercial. This is a real case that took place decades earlier, when Bernays himself led the campaign also marked by the phrase “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet”.

The ad featured an image of British journalist Lady Grace Drummond Hay, the first woman to travel the world by plane. Here’s what the poster said: “The fact that smoking was not allowed (…) only increased my appetite for a Lucky Strike! Oh, how good was the first one I tasted! I’m really interested in Lucky Strike – the roasted flavor is lovely. I smoke Lucky instead of sweets – that’s what a lot of men have been doing over the years. I think it’s about time we women smoked Luckies to stay thin.” As if the originality of the campaign was not enough, Bernays went further: he sent photos of Parisian models to reporters and big names in the fashion industry, in addition to requesting medical articles that proved the negative effects of sugar on the body, ensuring that cigarette consumption would be preferable.

Torches of Liberty

Thanks to his success with Lucky Strike, Freud’s nephew soon found himself in the crosshairs of the American Tobacco Corporation. Faced with the movements for universal suffrage, the company’s president, George Washington Hill, saw emerging feminism as a powerful market. And, together with Bernays, he designed a historic action carried out during the traditional Easter Sunday parade on Fifth Avenue in New York: in the edition of 1929, a group of women took to the streets to protest against gender inequality carrying cigarettes instead of banners. The act made headlines and guided national public debate, under the nickname Torches of Freedom, in English, in a clear comparison with the Statue of Liberty to symbolize the emancipation of modern women.

It cannot be said that Edward Bernays did not know that the female audience, more than an avid consumer, is also a powerful agent of social transformation – for better or for worse. In his book “Propaganda”, released in 1923, the publicist stated that women, when aware of their ability to promote great changes, could alter the course of story. In fact, it is curious that the first waves of feminism were surfed by companies led by men willing to twist reality in the name of profit.

As if to prove the reality of female power, when reality overlaps with vested interests, it would be women themselves who, at the end of the 20th century, would lead the opposition to cigarettes: in 1929, the Chicago Anti-Cigarette League was founded by activist Lucy Page Gaston. At the same time, the National Council for Women, also of American origin, was fighting for laws that would restrict the sale of cigarettes to this public. It will still take a few decades to reverse the damage of advertising in the world: according to the WHO, tobacco consumption continues to increase in developing countries. They, however, are more aware: according to data from 2010, the population of smokers among men reaches 1960 ,9%, against 7.4% among women.

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