Though its story is recounted again and again, the most overrated public relations campaign in American history was Edward Bernays’s 1929 campaign for the American Tobacco Company, which was designed to persuade women to smoke cigarettes in public.
In 1929, so the story goes, George W. Hill, the owner of American Tobacco, asked Edward Bernays to run a campaign intended to expunge the “hussy” label from women who smoked in public. Bernays, doubly the nephew of Sigmund Freud (his mother was Freud’s sister; his father was Freud’s wife’s brother), was known for his ability to appeal to people’s subconscious desires and seemed ideal for the task.
To prepare for the campaign, he consulted Freud’s friend the psychoanalyst A. A. Brill, who explained that “some women regard cigarettes as symbols of freedom.…More women now do the same work as men do.…Cigarettes, which are equated with men, become torches of freedom.”
Bernays came away from this meeting with an idea. “I found a way to help break the taboo against women smoking in public,” he wrote in his 1965 memoir, Biography of an Idea . “Why not a parade of women lighting torches of freedom- smoking cigarettes?” Utilizing a women’s rights motif, and enlisting the support of “a leading feminist,” Ruth Hale, Bernays had a contingent of cigarettepuffing women march in the 1929 Easter parade down Fifth Avenue in New York. “Our parade of ten young women lighting ‘torches of freedom’ on Fifth Avenue on Easter Sunday as a protest against woman’s inequality caused a national stir,” Bernays proclaimed. “Frontpage stories in newspapers reported the freedom march in words and pictures.”
While this story is fascinating, revealing the ways that public relations specialists routinely try to connect a client’s marketing goals with people’s social or personal aspirations, it is also exaggerated. The social impact of Bernays’s campaign was small. By 1929 many proper middle-class women had already begun smoking in public. Also, the “torches of freedom” parade was not a major news story; actual coverage was far more modest than Bernays’s tale suggests.
One reason for the story’s persistence is that Bernays, a prodigious self-promoter until the day he died, at the age of 103, repeated it again and again, and in time it became PR folklore. As Bernays himself might have instructed, repeat it enough, and it becomes true.
The most underrated PR campaign in American history—indeed an unfamiliar one to most people—was the 1949 effort that killed the possibility of guaranteed health care for all Americans. There had been attempts to establish a national health care system during the 1930s, and following the war the public demand for guaranteed health care continued to grow. By January 1949 national health insurance bills were pending in Congress, and the prospect of universal, federally insured coverage seemed bright.
Panicked that doctors’ customary privileges would be compromised by such a system, the American Medical Association hired Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter, a California-based husband-andwife public relations team, to bury the prospect of legislation. Postwar politics provided an ideal context for their efforts, and they had the AMA launch an aggressive smear attack linking national health insurance with communism.
The campaign downplayed public health care needs and spotlighted the evils of governmental intervention. Over an eleven-month period, fortified by the largest public relations war chest that had ever been assembled, Whitaker and Baxter waged a pervasive public assault on what they christened “Compulsory Health Insurance,” and by November 1949 they had their target dead in the water.
Today, more than fifty years later, millions of Americans still lack adequate health insurance, and the problem is getting worse. Looking back, we have Whitaker and Baxter and the American Medical Association to thank for this predicament.