Rising from the ashes.
The smoking ban is brilliant news for certain areas of the public relations industry, especially if they learn from the guerrilla tactics of US PR legend Edward Bernays
The front pages herald the news that smoking has been banned in public places – a good day for those not addicted to Satan’s snuff, but a brilliant day for certain areas of the public relations business.
The PR fees offered by the various tobacco giants are eye-watering. Camouflaged in PR speak, most of the tobacco companies employ public relations professionals to communicate issues that promote a responsible attitude to the horrors of lighting up.
Pressures have increased over the years to handicap the processes of the giants, and it’s a far cry from the heady unregulated days of the 60s and 70s. Bob Burton’s recent report, “Inside The Tobacco Industry’s Files” for the Center for Media and Democracy, said: “The tobacco industry pioneered many deceptive public relations tactics, casting a long shadow over science and health reporting, as well as the public’s right to know. Before its fall from grace, the tobacco industry created front groups, courted journalists and obscured damning scientific evidence using obscure facts to shape public debates.”
A new study by researchers at the University of California has found that the tobacco industry “recruited and managed an international network of more than 80 scientific and medical experts in Europe, Asia and elsewhere in a bid to avoid regulations on secondhand smoke.” In 1991 alone, the industry spent $3.3 million (£1.89m) on the programme, according to company documents.
The programme’s goal was “to influence policy makers, media and the public” by having industry consultants attend conferences, present papers and lobby, all while hiding the tobacco industry’s role.
This murky legacy has one man to thank, Edward Bernays, who should undoubtedly be the muse to young PR professionals who are happy to work on tobacco accounts in the 21st century. Money will be pouring in today to apply Bernays’ blend of lateral thinking and unconventional guerrilla tactics to keep butts smoldering.
Bernays’ company, in the dawn of the last century, was called Big Think. It was commissioned to develop new ways of behaving, which appeared obscure but over time reaped huge rewards for his clients and redefined the very texture of American life.
Perhaps one of the finest examples of a Bernays “tactic” was his campaign for Lucky Strike cigarettes, after the first world war. George Washington Hill, the head of the American Tobacco Company, commissioned Bernays to exploit and win over female consumers for Lucky Strike.
Bernays engineered a campaign to infiltrate approval among young women. The covert campaign deftly wove cigarettes into health, beauty, and feminism. An ad agency of the time had come up with ATC strap line “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet”, Bernays conscripted experts in the style, fashion and health industries to extol the benefits of slimness and the dangers of sugar.
After spotting that there was a social taboo against women smoking in public, Bernays made his assistant, Bertha Hunt, a mole to encourage a cluster of young New York trendsetters to march down Fifth Avenue smoking cigarettes at Easter in 1929. The stunt generated unseen media interest, resultant news stories about the “Torches of Freedom” march, which failed to declare Hunt’s employer. This led to similar manifestations in other cities and helped transform public view about women smokers.
Bernays also invented sophisticated product placement by persuading the Ziegfeld Girls, entertainment icons of the time, to “puff away”. Perhaps the best example of his chutzpah was a ruse to persuade a Parisian fashion house to change the forthcoming season’s colour to the same as the brand colours of ATC. Failing to achieve this, he dusted himself down and targeted the British suffragette movement with the idea that they should embrace puffing in public places, something of a social taboo at the time.
Years later Bernays tried to distance himself from his dubious achievements which had generated revenues of $32m in 1928 for American Tobacco. Bernays never smoked, and said he preferred chocolate, but his pragmatism raked in enormous fees estimated at around $300,000.
That same pragmatism will be at the heart of modern day PR, which the descendants of Bernays will be considering, in an attempt to hurdle one of the final obstacles for the tobacco giants.
If true creative genius still exists and can be applied to overcome*the challenges set by our modern masters to delay the twilight of the industry, the rewards will, as Bernays noted, be “like opening a goldmine in your own back yard!”