What Bernays started can Bloomberg and Gates end?

Fascinating to see Bill Gates joins Michael Bloomberg’s campaign to curb smoking in developing world.

Many students of PR will be familiar with the Torches of Freedom story of how one of the discipline’s “founding fathers” is said to have made it acceptable for 20th century women to light up cigarettes.  Indeed, John Stauber notes that PR and tobacco “grew up together.”

In the affluent world, it has been the anti-smoking activists who have made best use of public relations in recent years by making the “habit” socially unacceptable and successfully lobbying governments to ban smoking in public. 

However, cigarettes remain a legal product and, despite increased restrictions on how they can be promoted and sold, and campaigns aimed at quitting, governments continue to benefit from tax income (albeit offset by costs in healthcare).  Taxation is of course, one of the tactics used to force smokers to quit – but it does send a mixed message at the same time.

Now Bill and Melinda Gates are joining with New York mayor Michael Bloomberg to put their money behind a campaign taking on Big Tobacco in the developing world.

In the UK, the tobacco industry barely made a PR squeak in the face of last year’s smoking in public bans – but clearly the focus has shifted to parts of the world where there is a much larger market and little PR opposition at present.

Smoking is said to have killed 5 million people in 2000 alone – and the Gates Foundation cites some shocking statistics, highlighting how households in some of the world’s poorest countries spend many times more on tobacco than education. 

The big money approach being taken to counter the marketing moves of the tobacco companies in these countries includes “campaigns to persuade people of the inadvisability of smoking, and efforts to induce governments to impose bans”.

There is undoubtedly much that can be learned from decades of PR activities aimed at reversing Bernays’ work, which still seems to be the main strategy of the tobacco giants, in making smoking appear glamorous.

The reality of smoking is anything but glamorous – from the smell and health issues to the cost concerns.  But too many young people in developed countries are still getting the message that smoking is a right of passage, whilst elsewhere in the world, the perceived pleasure of a cigarette continues the legacy of misery that Bernays laid claim to having created.


  1. I have to admit that despite the deception associated with it, I could not help but admire Bernays’ efforts. He recognized very early what all good marketers now know– the most profitable scenario for your product is making it a consumer force of habit.
    In Canada, at least, I’m not sure smoking is necessarily seen as “cool” among youth. Legislation has essentially made smoking an inconvenience; so why do people continue to do it? Marketers/PR folks stand to learn a valuable lesson from Berynays’ campaign: when something becomes ingrained in behaviour, it becomes very difficult to break (for much the same reason, obesity continues to increase to epidemic proportions– as kid’s, we subconsciously equated junk food with reward/comfort).

  2. Brandon – I always show the footage of Bernays from The Century of the Self programme (available via Google video) in my first class of the CIPR qualifications. When they hear of the Torches of Freedom campaign, like you then report admiration but also some concern over the aim in respect of what we now know about smoking.

    Of course, it may be a relevant strategy to understand habits and relate these to your aims (although smoking may be chemically addictive rather than just habitual for some). But we need to consider carefully the ethics of this, particularly if that habit carries with it some risks or negative consequences.

    The psychology of linking reward to a brand is pretty simple conditioning, but as we see with smoking and fast food, it can be much harder to reverse that.

  3. Heather, This assumes that PR started in the USA in the last century. This is of course nonsense. The ongoing Wikipedia battle between the History of PR http://xrl.in/cfi and the American view http://xrl.in/cfj shows just how US centric this idea is (and I am by no means a subscriber to the Scottish view of PR as propaganda).

    For some Edward Louis Bernays, is considered the founding father of modern public relations. He was centuries behind.

    And, for those of us who believe in the relationship model of PR http://xrl.in/cfl, even the ground breaking model of the antics of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, tells only the story of agentry and that gave us the tactic that so seduces John Stauber.

    PR has to get over its role of servant of Marketing, that practice that grew up with communism, fascism out of imperialism.

    This is a different era and Bernays was a creature of his time, a latter day Mongol ambassador.

  4. David – I agree entirely that Bernays is definitely a reflection of his place and times – but with so many PR folk still demonstrating his techniques, it probably tells us something about our times too.

    Century of the Self clearly shows how Bernays exploited the government fears over communism (power of the masses), and it is definitely a US-viewpoint.

    I believe there is a lot of history of PR that does reflect a different approach, and like you, I don’t just mean propaganda as per Jacquie L’Etang’s work. Having said that, there is a lot of interest in the 20th century work of Grierson that she highlights and it is useful to see a public sector perspective.

    Much of the focus on the post 1860s emergence of PR (as conceived by Grunig & Hunt in post-rationalising the discipline’s history in the US-context) is related to increased literacy, enfranchisement of the masses, etc. That of course, puts PR very much into the media relations domain.

    I find evidence of PR (not necessarily termed that) in lots of historical work that I read. You only have to look at Nelson for example of how he, the navy, the media and government used communications to their own ends.

    Of course, the work of the ancient Greeks offers interesting lessons in terms of rhetoric and we’ve only just touched on history within other cultures for relationship models.

    However, I find many students of PR need to have the Bernays heritage as well since it provides a modern context and demonstrates how PR theory etc is still very US-oriented. I just make sure it isn’t the only historical dimension discussed.

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