Archive for January, 2010
Lisa Held, a doctoral student in the History and Theory of Psychology at York University in Toronto, has written a fascinating piece on how the nephew of Sigmund Freud, Edward L. Bernays–who was born in Vienna but raised in New York–used his famous uncle’s theories to sell cigarettes and bacon to Americans. His approach was all about leveraging psychological insights to “engineer consent” for new types of behavior.
In 1929, for example, “nice girls” didn’t smoke. Indeed, a woman who smoked was apt to be seen as promiscuous. In an attempt to broaden the market for his client Lucky Strikes, Bernays consulted with A.A. Brill, his uncle’s leading disciple in the United States, who told him that cigarettes were a symbol of male power. Bernays took this insight and produced a P.R. campaign that not only made it acceptable for women to smoke, but made it desirable. Held writes:
Equating smoking with challenging male power was the cornerstone of Lucky Strike’s “Torches of Freedom” campaign, which debuted during New York’s annual Easter Parade on April 1, 1929. Bernays had procured a list of debutantes from the editor of Vogue magazine and pitched the idea that they could contribute to the expansion of women’s rights by lighting up cigarettes and smoking them in the most public of places—Fifth Avenue. The press was warned beforehand and couldn’t resist the story. The “Torches of Freedom Parade” was covered not only by the local papers, but also by newspapers nationwide and internationally. Bernays was duly convinced that linking products to emotions could cause people to behave irrationally. In reality, of course, women were no freer for having taken up smoking, but linking smoking to women’s rights fostered a feeling of independence.
Subsequently, Bernays pulled off almost as neat a trick that persuaded Americans it was OK to eat a gigantic 1,000-calorie breakfast every day. You can read about it here.
The idea of engineering consent remains powerful even today. Despite appearances, we still do not live in a world where everything is permitted. Millions of consumers still need a stamp of approval before changing their behavior. Brands that can give it to them can change the game.