Freud, A Lucky Strike, & The Birth of Modern Marketing

"The Engineering of Consent"

Back in the early 20th century, the world of marketing was all about communicating what the product is, what it can do, and every once in a while even a benefit or two – in as simple and concise a manner as possible.

It was a product-first (and only) approach. But then came along Mr. Psychology, Freud – talking about the id-ego-superego and what motivates people to make decisions.

What does this have to do with modern marketing? Well, so happens that Freud's nephew was a PR guy. THE PR guy. Born in Vienna in 1891, Edward Bernays grew up in New York City. His mother was Freud's sister and they often spent the holidays together with the Freuds by the lake in Austria. Bernays had a lot of time to hear all about his famous uncle's ideas about the mechanics of the human mind (and spirit).

Bernays, largely considered the founder of public relations, was a marketing genius. A real pioneer. He did persona-first marketing before it became all the rage nearly 100 years later.

He was the first to realize and apply his theory, based on Freud’s, that people could be made to want things they don’t need by appealing to unconscious desires.

You’ve Come A Long Way Baby

"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? “

The most famous example comes from what he did for Lucky Strike.

Before Bernays came on the scene – even after women got the vote – smoking was considered taboo for women. It was not lady-like. It was part of the manly repertoire, not women's. But the tobacco industry realized that nearly half of its total available market was out of reach – due to the cultural role that was incumbent upon women in those days.

In 1928 George Washington Hill, head of the American Tobacco Company, producer of the Lucky Strike cigarette, hired Bernays to influence women to start smoking.

“If I can crack that market,” he told Bernays, “it will be like opening a new gold mine right in our front yard.”

Bernays had marketing theories, strategies, and tactics that no one else had in those days.

He wanted more than just to get women to smoke. He wanted to bring about a grand sweeping cultural shift, turn smoking into a positive emotional experience for women, and make it accepted by society – women and men alike.

He launched his campaign with the Easter Sunday Parade in New York City – which received massive media coverage in those days. Like the Superbowl and the World Cup today.

To get things rolling, he hired a number of women and placed them among crowd. He planned it so that these women, at the appropriate moment, would all stop at the same time and light up cigarettes.

He also hired photographers to take flattering pictures of the women, which he then passed out to all the major newspapers. Bernays told the reporters that the women were not just lighting up cigarettes, they were lighting “torches of freedom.”

By exploiting women's aspirations for equality during the women’s liberation movement, Bernays achieved a cultural coup. And within a decade more than 20% of women smoked cigarettes.

Clearly, when we come across great marketing inspiration – we should use our powers for good and not evil. And today we don’t manipulate the masses, we have conversations, we aim for engagement, and we are customer-centric.

Nevertheless, the one truth that remains steadfast – is that great marketing is persona-first marketing.

How well do you know your key personas?

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