In the late 1920’s, when it was a taboo for women in America to smoke, George Hill, the then-president of the American Tobacco Company, had a request for his friend, Edward Bernays.
Bernays, known for introducing the concept of Public Relations to the world, was fascinated by the way crowds behaved. He agreed with his uncle, Sigmund Freud, that people were irrational creatures that acted in self-interest. To him, therefore, it was certainly possible to manipulate self-interest, to advertise a product in such a way that people would say, “I might not need that, but I most definitely could never be happy without it” – that was Bernays’ objective. And he succeeded. He is the great-great-greatest grandfather of advertisement as we know it today.
So Bernays busied himself, trying to understand why women weren’t smoking cigarettes. And he discovered that in many minds, cigarettes were the symbol of male power. Now all he had to do was find a way to turn it around so he could make women see cigarettes as a question of women’s rights, just like his tobacco producing friend had asked.
He lost no time. He hired a group of women, ‘rich debutantes’, to march in a local parade with cigarette packs strapped to their thighs, and instructed them to light the cigarettes and smoke them when he gave them a signal. He then informed local press that a group of suffragettes were going to be marching for women’s rights, and described their lighting the cigarettes as the “Torches of Freedom’.
And that was that. People bought into the idea that a woman who smoked was a woman who was independent, was a woman who knew her rights, and was a woman who was free.
But here are all the things this story implies, to me:
First, we tend to seek out a label we can identify with.
For example, a friend of mine from the UK was telling me about how from where she came, a pierced nose was usually taken to mean an involvement with an ‘alternative’ lifestyle or set of people. The way we dress, the music we listen to, the people we interact with, these aren’t just things we carry out purposelessly; they’re most often statements and signals that we’re constantly sending and receiving from people around us.
Second, for the above mentioned reason, we really are easily manipulated.
It’s easy for us to buy into brands and labels and tags. I’m not just talking about literal, physical products here. I’m also talking about stereotypes and images and the people we want to be seen as.
Even while fighting stereotypes, people accidentally place themselves into other stereotypes. The ‘accidentally’ mainstream anti-mainstream movement is living proof of that.
Third, everyone knows that everyone is easily manipulated.
This is not a conspiracy theory.
But I’m just saying that a lot of what we think is our opinion might actually be, without our knowledge, stemming from the things that other creeps (clever shits) like Bernays are paid to do today. Except on a scale much, much larger.
I was on a freelancing-little-jobs website and one online employer was openly offering to pay someone to ‘create about 50 online identities’ to review a certain product of theirs on online forums.
Fourth, when we’re not prepared for an ‘attack’, we take a stance way too easily. And this could be counterproductive to what we really believe we should be taking a stance on. As in, if someone says suddenly, “women’s rights or not?” you’re obviously going to be quick to defend your opinion with whatever is not the other opinion.
I realised this when I realised that I could imagine myself participating in a movement like this one if I were living in the 1920’s. Smoking as a symbol of liberation. It has quite a romantic ring to it, if I forget about all the things I know about tobacco and the tobacco industry.
Here’s another example of what I mean:
I realised recently that as a response to what I perceive as ‘modern’, I’ve developed a very dangerous habit of romanticizing the ‘traditional’. Traditional agriculture, architecture, music, art, lifestyle, anything.
But an ideal is an ideal. Glorifying tradition as an ideal is the same as glorifying modernity as an ideal. Tradition is not important. Not tradition for the sake of tradition, anyway. It’s just another tag. Another trap.
To end on a more positive note (justkidding), apparently, the so-called counter culture of the sixties against consumerism and manipulative advertisements, lead Bernays to discover that the people involved in such movements were looking more for personal expression than actual social and political change. People were then lead to believe that the kind of products they endorsed and bought was a form of self-expression.
This is why today, some environmentalists feel great pride in buying Apple products because of all the responsible changes that the company has made right from its manufacturing process to waste collection programs. This is why people buy Livestrong bands or wear FabIndia kurtas.
This is why we believe that a way to a ‘greener’ world is through being better consumers. Well. No. Just no. Please go watch: The Story of Change
Also, the brilliant movie that I got my references from: Century of the Self