Consumerism: Bernays And The Statue Of Liberty

December 14, 2008

A well crafted advert will cause many people to remember it, even if they do not remember or don’t understand what it is attempting to sell them. I have a fascination with the role adverts play in society, of the history of advertising, the evolution of adverts for consumerism, the mechanisms; psychology and semiotics. My skepticism and disillusion is with that something more austere and sinister beneath adverts, behind the thin veil of life enhancing promises and beautiful faces.

A frequent device in adverts is association; the pairing of separate concepts or ‘experiences’ to create a perceptible link between the two. Why is this so common? Why is this better than simply revealing the product and singing its praises?

It was in the 1920s that a “public relations” entrepreneur named Edward Bernays became one of the first people to use association to coerce a section of people into spending their money, and in doing so would create the groundwork for modern advertising and consumerism using that method. But the striking thing about it was his boldness in using popular theories and research from contemporary psychotherapy. The reason for his introduction to – and insight into – an emerging science was through his uncle, Sigmund Freud, who had sent Bernays a copy of his book on psychoanalysis as a gift.

Bernays began work for a cigarette company who realised they could significantly increase their sales if it were socially acceptable for women to smoke in public. Bernays took it upon himself to not only promote the cigarette brand, but to conceive a technique of doing so that indulged his uncle’s theories on the cigarette as a phallic symbol combined with the theories on crowd psychology by Gustave Le Bon.

After consulting a psychoanalyst in New York, Bernays engineered an extravagant idea in which a group of females would perform an ‘association’ during a women’s rights march in New York City. And so, at a specific point in the march, the women stopped in front of a hoard of photographers (anonymously tipped off by Bernays), pulled cigarette boxes from their undergarments and each lit up Lucky Strike cigarettes. This was the product placement. But to destroy the public perception of female smokers, Freud’s psychology was drip-fed into public consciousness by means of wordplay.

One of the women was Bernays’ secretary who, having been scripted, began to expound on their lit cigarettes representing “torches of freedom”. The cameras flashed and the sound bite and the picture were splashed across newspapers the following day. The image of women smoking was now truly public. But it was the semantics that carried the suggestion and association: the phrase “Torches of freedom” had been a deliberate plant, intended to invoke the feminine image of the Statue Of Liberty holding a torch aloft. Their “freedom” referred to Freud’s theories on the subconscious female desire for a penis which, in this case, manifested itself in their only smoking cigarettes in private. And now they were free; liberated; socially accepted. The stunt was a huge success and cigarette sales – and the number of women smoking publicly – increased exponentially. “PR” and marketing were born, and the seeds of consumerism were sewn.

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3 Responses to “Consumerism: Bernays And The Statue Of Liberty”

  1. Matt Says:

    Great post Mat – interesting stuff.

    Hope all is fine and well wherever you are!


  2. […] quote I liked from a new reader/co-conspirator: “A frequent device in adverts is association; the pairing of separate concepts or […]

  3. DocDelete Says:

    …and if I could go back in time and prevent Bernays’ birth I would 😉

    Mind you, the a-bomb had to happen, it’s just coincidence that Oppenheimer got there first.


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