04 March 2012

Tobacco and the Torches of Freedom Parade – Easter Sunday 1929

Father of Spin by Larry Tye, 1998, Excerpts

The Torches of Freedom campaign remains a classic in the world of public relations, one still cited in classrooms and boardrooms as a brilliant creative analysis of social symbols and how they can be manipulated. For starters, he concealed the fact that American Tobacco was behind his initiatives. Discerning readers might have suspected that a commercial interest had prompted the campaign, but it would have taken a detective to pinpoint the company.

College coeds were trying to tear down barriers against women smoking in public places. So, why not organize a parade of prominent women lighting their “torches of freedom”? And do it on Easter Sunday, a holiday symbolizing freedom of spirit, on Fifth Avenue, America’s most prestigious promenade. The dispatch explained, “Women smokers and their escorts will stroll on Fifth Avenue between Eleven-Thirty and One O’clock.”

Ten young women turned out, marching down Fifth Avenue with their lighted “torches of freedom,” and the newspapers loved it. Two-column pictures showed elegant ladies, with floppy hats and fur-trimmed coats, cigarettes held self-consciously by their sides, as they paraded down the wide boulevard. Dispatches ran the next day, on page one, in papers from Fremont, Nebraska, to Portland, Oregon, to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Miss Hunt issued the following communiqué from the smoke-clouded battlefield: “I hope that we have started something and that these torches of freedom, with no particular brand favored, will smash the discriminatory taboo on cigarettes for women and that our sex will go on breaking down all discriminations.”

The actual march went off more smoothly than even its scriptwriters imagined. The outcome was one that publicity men can only dream about: an irresistible script for a stunt, flawlessly executed, covered in nearly every paper in America, with no one detecting the fingerprints of either Bernays or his tobacco company client.

Mrs. Taylor-Scott Hardin parades down New York's Fifth Avenue with her husband while smoking "torches of freedom", a gesture of protest for absolute equality with men.

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