Why Women Smoke

Most people have heard of Sigmund Freud, but very few have heard of his nephew Edward Bernays.  Bernays’ impact on American life and culture is arguably more pervasive than his better known uncle.  While Freud delved into the mind, the unconscious, and the new science of psychoanalysis to treat patients with various mental diseases and afflictions, Bernays sought to take his Uncle Freud’s insights and commercialize them for profit.

Called the “Father of Public Relations” Bernays applied Freud’s complex ideas on people’s unconscious and psychological motivations and used them to sell products such as bacon, cigarettes and even governments. One of Bernays’ favorite techniques for manipulating public opinion was the indirect use of “third party authorities.”  “If you can influence the leaders, either with or without their conscious cooperation, you automatically influence the group which they sway,” he said.

Bacon the All-American Breakfast, Really?

Bernays used this technique to sell bacon – lots of it.  He surveyed physicians and reported their recommendation that people should eat a heavy breakfast. He sent the results of the survey to 5,000 physicians, along with publicity touting bacon and eggs as a heavy breakfast.  Over time, bacon and eggs became the “true” all-American breakfast. But increasing sales of bacon was nothing compared to his ability to sell cigarettes.

Cigarettes and “Torches of Liberty”

In 1928, Bernays took a job promoting Lucky Strike cigarettes for American Tobacco.  Part of his assignment was to get women to smoke.  At this time, female smoking was considered taboo.  American Tobacco, however, envisioned tremendous profit potential if it could encourage the other half of the adult population to light up.

Bernays first focused on the “health benefit” of smoking - with the slogan “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.”  The goal was to get women to smoke if they perceived cigarettes as a way to lose weight.  This campaign, however, was not as successful as hoped.  So Bernays consulted with
Abraham Arden Brill, a psychoanalyst in the U.S. to better understand how to manipulate the female mind. (Uncle Freud was still in Europe.)  Brill explained that women tended to regard cigarettes as symbols of freedom because they equated cigarettes with male behavior.  This gave Bernays an idea. He decided to associate cigarettes with a powerful image of women’s freedom in the early 20th century – women's suffrage. 

During the beginning of the 1900’s there was a growing movement demanding a woman’s right to vote.  In 1920, the 19th Amendment was passed finally granting this right. In 1929, Bernays seized the public imagination by hiring young models and debutantes to join the Easter Parade in New York.  They rode on a float and posed as suffragettes while lighting up cigarettes and wearing banners describing their cigarettes as “torches of liberty.”  Images of these women smoking spread throughout the country.  Cigarette sales to women skyrocketed.  Now, anyone against women smoking appeared to be against women’s liberation too.  This was the turning point in America's acceptance of female smoking.  To further legitimize this image, other PR men made sure that movie starlets in the 1930’s and 1940’s would be seen lighting up cigarettes both on the screen and off.

Bernays career flourished after his cigarette campaign.  He went on to work for United Fruit (today’s United Brands) where he used his skills to manipulate Latin America politics and perceptions to the benefit of the giant fruit company.

The Death Toll Continues

Today, according to the Centers for Disease Control, smoking kills 142,000 women every year (that is 4 women every 15 minutes).  And, according to the American Cancer Society, not only does smoking increase the risk for
lung cancer, it is also a risk factor for cancers of the cervix, mouth, larynx (voice box), pharynx (throat), esophagus, kidney, bladder, pancreas, and stomach.

So the next time a woman lights up a cigarette you can thank the “science” of Public Relations for helping to make it possible. 

More Information

Learn More about Bernays, Public Relations and his campaigns:




Provocative Video Series – The Century of the Self (available online)

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