How Tobacco Companies Broke The Female Market

Tom Stevenson

Today, smoking is seen as an unhealthy and toxic habit. Tobacco companies are banned from advertising in most European countries and health campaigns regularly tout the numerous ill effects of smoking.

However, one hundred years ago things were different. Far from being seen as a bad habit, cigarettes were described as symbols of emancipation. The men that smoked were were portrayed as heroic figures.

Anxiety about whether the practice was unhealthy was allayed by advertising campaigns in which physicians endorsed smoking. One such campaign by Lucky Strike described how “20,679 Physicians say ‘LUCKIES are less irritating.’”

The image of a smiling doctor was reassuring to many and with some adverts touting the ‘benefits’ of smoking, the practise became widespread among men.

One demographic was not widely engaged in the practice though, women. In the early 1900s, smoking was a social taboo for women. It was considered inappropriate, with cigarettes perceived to be props of ‘fallen women’ such as prostitutes.

Such was the antipathy towards women smoking that the New York City Board of Aldermen passed a unanimous ordinance in 1908 which prohibited women from smoking in public.

The female market was an untapped source of revenue that the tobacco companies were itching to break. Half of their potential market was out of reach due to the cultural stigma surrounding women and smoking.

Marketing campaigns were run, such as the one below by Ogden and Phillips, but they were unsuccessful. It’s not an easy task to overturn entrenched cultural attitudes!

An early attempt to convince women to smoke in 1900 by the tobacco company Ogden and Phillips. Source: Wikimedia

Just when their prospects were looking bleak, history intervened and presented them with an opportunity. The outbreak of the First World War meant many women took over the jobs of men who had left to fight in the war.

At the time, it was not common to see women in the workplace. This was another cultural taboo. This one was broken out of necessity to aid the war effort. Once in the workplace, women began to smoke like their male counterparts despite the practice being frowned upon.

As the war progressed and practices that were once unusual came to be normalised, cigarettes were seen as a way for women to assert their independence and demand equality with men. Far from being the preserve of ‘fallen women’, smoking came to symbolise glamour and seduction.

Still, the uptake of smoking was slow and it was not until the end of the 1920s that the final breakthrough would come. The President of the American Tobacco Company in 1928, George Washington Hill, realised that women represented a gold mine.

To access this potential source of revenue, Hill turned to Edward Bernays, the man regarded as the father of public relations. Bernays was the nephew of the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and it was one of his uncle’s students, Abraham Brill, whom Bernays turned to for help.

Brill advised Bernays that cigarettes represented feminine desires that were suppressed by their role in the modern world. To break this repression and allow women to act out their desires, he suggested cigarettes be represented as “torches of freedom.”

To achieve this goal, Bernays decided to pay ten women to smoke as they walked in the Easter Sunday Parade in New York in 1929. Bernays handpicked his secretary, Brenda Hunt, to step out into the parade and light a cigarette followed by the other women. He tipped off the press and hired his own photographer to ensure good pictures were taken and the story was distributed around the world.

It was unclear whether the stunt would work. Women were only permitted to smoke in certain places, primarily, the sanctity of their home. The taboo was still strong and Bernays’ stunt was a punt.

He needn’t have worried. The following day, The New York Times reported on the parade with the headline, “PARADE OF JOBLESS PUT ON Group of Girls Puff at Cigarettes as a Gesture of “Freedom”.

The footage reverberated across the United States with women clamouring to smoke cigarettes and attain freedom. This was emphasised by Hunt’s, loose interpretation of events. Asked why she had stepped out into the parade, she told The New York Times she thought of the idea when a man told her to extinguish her cigarette as it embarrassed him. She stated: “I talked it over with my friends, and we decided it was high time something was done about the situation.”

Bernays’ stunt caused sales of Lucky Strike cigarettes to double from 1923 to 1929. The percentage of cigarettes purchased by women in 1923 was 5%, that had increased to 12% by 1929. The figure reached a peak in 1965 at 33.3%.

The key trick Bernays employed was to play on the psychological desire of women to be as free as their male counterparts. By referring to cigarettes as “torches of freedom” and to perform the stunt during the Easter Sunday Parade, a day which symbolised freedom and hope, he portrayed cigarettes as a path to obtaining that freedom.

He employed a technique which is well-known to marketers today, he created a demand for the product. The key thing is that the desire was not for the product itself, it was for what smoking signified. That smoking meant you were an independent and assertive woman who did what she wanted.

Today, we see this same message repeated everywhere. Buy this phone to help free up your time. Buy Alexa so you don’t have to go on your phone to google something. These products are sold to us as essential because they free us from a task or situation that was oppressive.

What Bernays realised was that if you appealed to people’s innermost desires, you could sell them almost anything. Women were sold the promise of freedom if they purchased cigarettes, today, we are sold the promise of convenience if we buy the latest gadgets.

The lesson we can learn from Bernays is that if you want to break into a new market or convince people to buy your product, you need to explain how it will make their lives better. Your product needs to serve more than a purpose it needs to make people feel like they belong.

This is why companies like Apple and Nintendo are so successful. It’s not because of the products, as good as they are, it’s because people feel like they a part of something bigger. That these products represent who they are and who they aspire to be.

The iPhones, watches and clothes we buy become an extension of ourselves, a reflection of our character. This is what Bernays showed in 1929 when he broke down the barriers that stopped women from smoking. We might be a lot wiser about the health effects of smoking today but the marketing principles remain solid as they were then.

Appeal to people’s desires and you’re on to a winner. As Bernays said in reflection on the event years later: “Age-old customs, I learned, could be broken down by a dramatic appeal.”

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