How One Man Changed The Advertising Industry

March 30, 2020

By Sophia Lopez

A flurry of blinding billboards welcomes over a hundred thousand Filipinos passing along EDSA on their way home. As the night unfolds, the streets of Manila come to life with promotional materials keeping drivers and commuters awake. Albeit seemingly harmless, these advertisement

Nowadays, advertisers tug on the heartstrings of consumers to put their client brand on the map. Consequently, people are being conditioned to think more with their hearts than their minds. This may be an obvious fact for millennials and digital natives, but this was not the case for the Lost Generation or those who were born between 1888 and 1900. 

Back in the 1910s, straightforward commercial messages using pure logic and data to influence buyer behavior were the norm. Marketing professionals simply relied on citing facts about products’ and services’ quality and sensibility. But when a cigarette enterprise found itself struggling to tap into a particular market segment to increase its share, it took seeking the service of an up-and-coming publicist named Edward Bernays for change to unfold.

Blowing Smoke

Like most of its competitors, the American Tobacco Company could not cater to women as smoking among females during the roaring 20s was looked down upon. Aiming to get rid of the stigma and acquire the women’s segment, the corporation’s president George Washington Hill took in Bernays. The publicist was one of the few men behind the movement that encouraged U.S. civilians to enlist in the army during World War I. With the image of a determined Uncle Sam and a straightforward call-to-action, the campaign easily became the face of American patriotism.

After the global conflict, Bernays wanted to apply his skills in a different field: advertising. That is why he agreed to revamp the image of Lucky Strike, a subsidiary of the American Tobacco Company. He did so by staging a group of women holding lit cigarettes in the 1929 Easter Parade — a monumental event filled with New York City’s hottest VIPs. Hired photographers took their pictures and passed the photos around to mainstream news organizations, who were fed the message that these ladies were “lighting the torches of freedom” from the patriarchy.

In a blink of an eye, the cigarette brand’s profits doubled and Bernays unwittingly initiated the world’s first publicity stunt, making him the father of Public Relations (PR). The press agent further strengthened the business in unconventional ways. He convinced women that having a puff of nicotine can slim their waists, referring to the product’s capability to suppress appetites. Promoting Lucky Strike’s forest green hue packaging as a trendy color, he also turned smoking into a fashion statement.

Before he hit the bulls-eye with Lucky Strike, Bernays dealt a hand in Republican party member Calvin Coolidge’s presidential comeback in the 1924 United States Elections. Inviting Broadway actors and singers to the White House for private breakfasts and concerts with the chief of state, he emphasized the politician’s friendliness and likability in front of the media. Weeks after Coolidge was photographed happily mingling with the stars, over 15 million Americans or 54% of the voting population put him in power. Corporations, political parties and even non-governmental organizations shortly followed suit, using famed figures to gain clout and cash. This particular strategy, as we know it, remains a powerful force in the advertising world today.

Bernays blazed a trail in many ways besides pioneering celebrity endorsements, emotional marketing and PR. His ingenuity shifted the industrial workplace in the 1910s when Venida Hair Nets wanted women to grow their manes to boost product patronage. The only problem standing in the way was ballroom dancer Irene Castle.

Halfway into the decade, the style icon cut her tresses short, setting a trend of short hair among thousands of women. Swaying public policy for private profit, Bernays talked legislators into requiring factory and kitchen workers to wear hairnets for the sake of safety and sanitation. It immediately worked in the marketer’s favor, as hairnets eventually became a fixture in manufacturing plants and food production centers. 

Bernays has his uncle Sigmund Freud to thank for his slick persuasion. The renowned American psychologist told his nephew about how people latch onto the stories that shape them. This can push one to adjust their behavior according to their perceived identities.  At some point, this causes some to mull over their insecurities and desires, both of which Bernays exploited to help companies meet their sales quotas.

The overlap of  psychology and advertising

Maximizing his extensive knowledge of the consumer mindset, Bernays built certain lifestyles around commodities. Doing so meant identifying buyers’ pain points and solving them through a product or service. This strategy has since been a mainstay in the advertising industry. 

Take Lucky Strike’s “Torches of Freedom” initiative as an example. It misled viewers into believing that a protest against toxic masculinity happened during the 1920s. The marketing stunt’s perceived political nature made it appealing to women. Females from the G. I. generation were sick of sexist ads and the cigarette entity’s “feminist” message was a breath of fresh air for them.  

Fast-forward to 2019, Marlboro employed a similar tactic with its “No More Maybe” campaign. Last year, they banked on the youth’s fear of missing out (FOMO) to encourage them to smoke.

Cashing in on the public’s fears and aspirations was no easy feat for Bernays as it required him to examine America’s status quo and draw out cultural and social insights from it. Nevertheless, the headstrong marketer rallied on upon discovering its importance in consumer persuasion. 

“So the question naturally arose: If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it?” Bernays asked in his 1928 book Propaganda.  

The outspoken author continued to write about propaganda, asserting its apparent necessity in our lives.

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in [a] democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country,” iterated the nephew of Freud.  

Bernays’ statement rubbed many people the wrong way because it had misguided sentiments on a ruler’s “duty” to control subordinates’ behavior for social order.  His ideas also sparked discussions on the ethics of emotional marketing. Some are questioning the morality of the advertising ploy as it covertly makes young consumers more vulnerable to deceptive and capitalistic claims. This problem worsens as individuals with questionable principles such as Richard Nixon hire publicists to improve their reputation by deceiving the masses.

”Everyone has a press agent now or a media consultant or communications director or whatever you want to call it. Some of Nixon’s people who went to jail called themselves public relations people. Image has become everything. Look what’s happened in politics,’‘ he told New York Times in a 1985 interview. 

Noticing that Richard Nixon — the US President involved in the Watergate scheme — had a team of spin doctors downplaying his crimes, Bernays realized that he has created a monster in PR. 

”Sometimes, it seems sort of like discovering a medicine to cure a disease, and then finding out that so much of it is being administered that people are getting sick from the overdoses.”

Not all marketing bigwigs are as self-aware as he is, which points to a greater concern: the covert manipulation of the masses through advertising. As advertisers tighten their grip on the world, it is best if we educate ourselves on how they shape public opinion. 

Doing so can prevent us from giving away our emotions to the highest bidder. One that wraps up opportunistic commercial messages into relatable quips that promote senseless money spending. More importantly, examining ads can help us wield our power to reinforce and impede corporations through dollar voting or financially supporting brands in line with one’s beliefs. After all, it is the people’s money that makes the world go round.


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