Torches of Freedom, or the self-perpetuating promotional power of science

Wake up people! Politicians and corporations are manipulating us. And they’re using all the sophistication of science to do it.

Thus is the general tenor of a recent wave of internet news articles and blog entries, illustrating the hidden machinations of the shadowy figures who ‘really’ control our lives. And though the claims made in these stories may not always hold true, they tell an interesting story about the power of science and scientific rhetoric to promote an idea.

If you enjoy a good conspiracy story, if you work in PR, or if you have campaigned for or against cigarettes, there is a good chance that you will have heard of Edward L. Bernays (1891-1994), nephew of Sigmund Freud, founder of public relations, and the man who first used his uncle’s theories to better manipulate the masses. Perhaps Bernays’ most infamous campaign, now commonly referred to as the “Torches of Freedom” stunt, was conducted in 1929 for the American Tobacco Corporation, manufacturer of Lucky Strike cigarettes.

Edward Bernays

Edward Bernays in the 1920s

As the story goes, in the 1920s there was a taboo on women smoking in public. Aware that he was missing out on a sizeable portion of the market, the president of American Tobacco called on Bernays to find a way to break this taboo.  To achieve this, the illustrious nephew of Freud, in turn, went to a psychoanalyst to figure out what cigarettes mean to women.

Can you see where this is going?

The psychoanalyst naturally identified the cigarettes as being a phallic symbol of male power and domination. So a natural way to get women to smoke was to link cigarette smoking to the female emancipation movement. And thus the phrase “torches of freedom” was born.

According to his memoirs[1], Bernays put the plan into action by having a group of ten debutantes march down 5th Avenue as a part of the great spectacle that traditionally was the Easter Day Parade in New York; at a given signal, they got out their cigarettes and proclaimed to the prearranged news reporters that they were lighting these torches of freedom as a protest against women’s inequality. The next day, the story made the headlines in newspapers around the nation, the taboo was broken, and henceforth women were free to let Humphrey Bogart light their cigarettes.

Though Bernays himself was never shy to boast of his successes, the story has by now gained a momentum of its own. It was first picked up in the mid-1990s by Bernays’ biographer Larry Tye and PR historian Stuart Ewen, but it soon garnered greater popularity when Adam Curtis featured it in a BBC4 documentary entitled The Century of the Self (here’s the relevant clip).[2] In recent years, a number of internet news sources and blogs have discovered it and touted it as an insider-tip on how the PR industry really works. Thus, it featured prominently in an issue of the Culture Wars magazine.  And boastful as he was, Bernays could never have hoped to get the kind of treatment that he got from the blog Little Known Facts.  Here, Bernays’ ten debutantes have turned into “thousands upon thousands of women marching right down famed Fifth Avenue [and] almost everyone had a cigarette too.” Recently, the torches of freedom campaign received its own Wikipedia page.[3] And even the former Fox News commentator Glenn Beck in January 2011 dedicated an entire show to Bernays, drawing parallels between the torches campaign and the psychological tricks used by the Obama administration to brainwash the American citizens.[4]

Indeed, the torches of freedom campaign was so perfect, in conception and execution, that it appears to have become the ultimate prototype for a successful PR campaign. After all, it has many features of a good PR story: A Freudian psychoanalyst, a phallic symbol, and a catchy patriotic slogan. In sum, it is a perfect application of scientific principles to the public relations practice. And hence, it doesn’t really matter that the campaign was in reality a complete failure.

woman smoking lucky strike

Advertising photo for Lucky Strike by Nickolas Muray, 1936.

In reality, the torches of freedom were only a very small part of a massive campaign that American Tobacco was running throughout the 1920s and early 30s, specifically to target women. And in reality the ten debutantes at the Easter Day Parade hardly received any attention at all. The ‘headlines’ were very few and far between. In fact, the only headline that is ever quoted (in the Curtis documentary) is from an article in the New York Times about the Parade in general, which lists as a fifth sub-heading, below more exciting news about current fashion trends at the parade, that some girls puffed at cigarettes “as a gesture of freedom.” The article dedicates a grand total of one sentence to Bernays’ campaign.[5]

The Chicago Daily Tribune paid a little more attention to the campaign, writing that “the customary efforts of advertisers to profit by the Easter parade were very much in evidence.” Thus, along with “half a dozen ‘sandwich’ men, […] five stunningly dressed girls puffed industriously at a certain brand of cigarette as they giggled their way down the street.”[6] Finally, the LA Times dedicated an entire stub to the stunt, which deserves to be quoted in its entirety:

“Presumably employed by a cigarette-manufacturing concern, a bevy of fashionably dressed women, most of them young, paraded Fifth Avenue today past St. Patrick’s Cathedral, calmly smoking cigarettes. They attracted but little attention and told reporters they were opposed to the sex taboo on women smoking elsewhere than in the home, in cafes, theatre rest rooms and private vehicles.”[7]

So the PR stunt attracted little attention. In fact, it was only one of many advertising gigs at the parade. And it was obvious to most reporters that it had been orchestrated by a tobacco company.  Not even the brilliant phrase ‘torches of freedom’ made it into print. Indeed, the PR campaign itself can only be seen as a failure. Yet the story of the campaign lives on as an example of a great PR stunt. Why is this? Why is the story of this campaign now thriving above and beyond all other PR campaigns? Apparently, it is too good a story to not be true. But what makes this story so good?

The answer lies in the image of science and psychology. There is a certain aesthetic to seeing a scientific theory put to work. And though the scientific rigour of Freud’s ideas about cigarettes and the unconscious may be debatable, they certainly served to lend credibility to Bernays’ campaigns in the 1920s. We are, after all, governed by psychological principles. People can be manipulated through the clever use of symbols and the application of these principles. In this sense, the torches campaign is exactly what we expect: We expect PR people to use psychological tricks on us.

Like many PR practitioners, Bernays was eager to use scientific imagery and rhetoric to promote his profession. Thus, he was always fond to talk about this story. And it is a powerful testament to the self-perpetuating promotional power of science that this story has taken on the life that it has. For though the science behind the campaign may have failed, the image of scientificity has clearly succeeded.

Michael Kliegl, PhD student, University of Kent

[1] Bernays, Edward L. 1965. Biography of an Idea – Memoirs of Public Relations Counsel Edward L. Bernays. Simon and Schuster: New York.  386-7.

[2] Tye, Larry. The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations. 1998. Henry Holt and Co.: New York; Ewen, Stuart. 1996. PR! A Social History of Spin. Basic Books: New York; Curtis, Adam. 2004. The Century of the Self. TV documentary for BBC4.


[3] To my knowledge, this is the only PR campaign to have its own wikipedia page. The story also features prominently in the articles about the history of PR ( and about Bernays himself (

[4] Beck’s programme is so full of factual errors, that it would take a separate blog entry to list them all. The Fox News show can be seen in two parts here: and here: (The bit about the ‘torches’ campaign starts at around 12:10).

[5] “Easter Sun Finds the Past in Shadow at Modern Parade,” New York Times, 1 April 1929.

[6] “Sun Smiles on New Yorkers in Easter Parade,” Chicago Daily Tribune, 1 April 1929.

[7] “Fair Smokers Go on Parade,” Los Angeles Times, 1 April 1929.