How Tobacco and PR Grew Up Together

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This article is part of the Tobacco portal on Sourcewatch funded from 2006 - 2009 by the American Legacy Foundation.

This article was first published as "Smoke and Mirrors: How Tobacco and PR Grew Up Together", PR Watch, volume 1, number 3, Third Quarter 1994. The original article was authored by John Stauber and is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.


The recent public controversy over tobacco companies and their role in misleading the public about the effects of smoking looks remarkably similar to the controversies of 40 years ago.

The first scientific studies documenting tobacco's role in cancer and other fatal illness began to appear in the early 1950s. Internal memos from the industry-funded Tobacco Institute refer to the PR fallout from this discovery as the "1954 emergency."

Fighting desperately for its economic life, the tobacco industry launched what must be considered the costliest, longest-running and most successful PR 'crisis management' campaign in history. In the words of the industry itself, the campaign was aimed at "promoting cigarettes and protecting them from these and other attacks," by "creating doubt about the health charge without actually denying it, and advocating the public's right to smoke, without actually urging them to take up the practice."[1]

Welcome to the 20th Century

The symbiotic relationship between cigarettes and PR goes back even further than the 1950s, to the early 20th century when both were fledgling industries, and the tobacco companies used PR's psychological marketing skills to first 'hook' women and then children to their drug.

Edward Bernays, Ivy Lee and John Hill today are legends within the PR profession. Bernays in particular is often referred to as the "father of PR." All three worked on PR for tobacco, pioneering techniques that today remain the PR industry's stock in trade: third party advocacy, subliminal message reinforcement, junk science, phony front groups, advocacy advertising, and buying favorable news reporting with advertising dollars.

During the Roaring Twenties, the American Tobacco Company turned to PR to develop a vast new market--American women--for sales of its Lucky Strike cigarettes. The company first hired adman A.D. Lasker, whose advertisements featured female opera stars, their soprano voices somehow unaffected by their love for Luckies.

Lasker portrayed Lucky Strikes as a healthy cigarette by concocting surveys using spurious data to claim that doctors preferred Luckies as the "less irritating" brand. However, his most effective campaign urged women to "Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet." The campaign increased Lucky sales threefold in just twelve months. (The message, "cigarettes help keep you thin," reverberates today in the brand name Virginia Slims.)

What Do Women Want?

It was Edward Bernays, however, who built both the theoretical and practical foundation of modern public relations, beginning with his promotion of women's smoking. Bernays was a nephew of Sigmund Freud who how to apply psychology on a mass scale while serving on the World War I Committee on Public Information. He never disguised the purpose of PR, saying those "who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses ... pull the wires which control the public mind."

On behalf of Lucky Strike, Bernays sought the advice of the psychoanalyst A.A. Brill. Brill's message to Bernays and the American Tobacco company was "freedom": sell cigarettes to women as a symbol of liberation.

Following this advice, Bernays staged a legendary publicity event that is still taught as an example in PR schools. He hired beautiful fashion models to march in New York's prominent Easter parade, each waving a lit cigarette and wearing a banner proclaiming it a "torch of liberty." Bernays made sure that publicity photos of his smoking models appeared world-wide.

To his credit, an older Bernays expressed regret at his work, saying if he'd known of the dangers of tobacco he would have refused the account. His admission and opinion remains rare among PR practioners.

Thanks to Bernays and other early pioneers of public relations, cigarettes built a marketing juggernaut upon an unshakeable identification with sex, youth, vitality and freedom. The work for the tobacco industry, in turn, earned PR widespread credibility and launched the rise of today's multi-billion dollar public relations industry.

Decades of saturation cigarette advertising and promotion continued into the 1950s via billboards, magazine, movies, TV and radio.

The Truth Hurts

In 1952, smoking's link to lung cancer began receiving major media attention. Reader's Digest ran an influential article titled, "Cancer by the Carton." A 1953 report by Dr. Ernst L. Wynder heralded to the scientific community a definitive link between cigarette smoking and cancer. Over the next 24 months, dozen of articles appeared in the New York Times and other major public publications: Good Housekeeping, the New Yorker, Look, Woman's Home Companion. Sales of cigarettes went into an unusual, sudden decline.

The tobacco czars were in a panic. For help, they turned to John Hill, the founder of the PR megafirm, Hill & Knowlton. Hill designed a brilliant and expensive campaign that the tobacco industry is still using today in its fight to save itself from public rejection and governmental action.

Hill is remembered today as a shrewd but ethical businessman who tried to keep "quacks" out of the PR profession. In a letter, he once stated, "It is not the work of public relations ... to outsmart the American public by helping management build profits."

Yet Hill's work to save tobacco in the 1950s is such an egregious example of "outsmarting the American public ... to build profits" that his company is still in court today answering criminal charges. Hill & Knowlton's role is described as follows in a 1993 lawsuit, State of Mississippi vs. the Tobacco Cartel:

The presidents of the leading tobacco manufacturers ... hired the public relations firm of Hill & Knowlton. ... As a result of these efforts, the Tobacco Industry Research Committee (TIRC), an entity later know as The Council for Tobacco Research (CTR), was formed.
The Tobacco Industry Research Committee immediately ran a full-page promotion in more than 400 newspapers aimed at an estimated 43 million Americans ... entitled "A Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers."...
In this advertisement, the participating tobacco companies recognized their "special responsibility" to the public, and promised to learn the facts about smoking and health. The participating tobacco companies promised to sponsor independent research on the subject. ... The participating tobacco companies also promised to cooperate closely with public health officials....

After thus beginning to lull the public into a false sense of security concerning smoking and health, the Tobacco Industry Research Committee continued to act as a front for tobacco industry interests. Despite the initial public statements and posturing, and the repeated assertions that they were committed to full disclosure and vitally concerned, the TIRC did not make the public health a primary concern....

In fact, there was a coordinated, industry-wide strategy designed actively to mislead and confuse the public about the true dangers associated with smoking cigarettes. Rather than work for the good of the public health as it had promised, and sponsor independent research, the tobacco companies and consultants, acting through he tobacco trade association, refuted, undermined, and neutralized information coming from the scientific and medical community.

There is no question that the tobacco industry knew what scientists were learning about tobacco. The TIRC maintained a library with cross-indexed medical and scientific papers from 2,500 medical journals; as well as press clippings, government reports and other documents. TIRC employees culled this library for scientific data with inconclusive or contrary results regarding tobacco and the harm to human health. These were compiled into a carefully selected 18-page booklet, titled "A Scientific Perspective on the Cigarette Controversy," which was mailed to over 200,000 people, including doctors, members of Congress and the news media.

Bringing in the Sheaves

During the 1950s, tobacco companies more than doubled their advertising budgets, going from $76 million in 1953 to $122 million in 1957. The TIRC spent another $948,151 in 1954 alone, of which one-fourth went to Hill & Knowlton, another fourth went to pay for media ads, and most of the remainder went to administrative costs. Despite TIRC's promise to "sponsor independent research," Only $80,000, or less than 10% of the total budget for the year, actually went to scientific projects.

Hill's work on behalf of tobacco was successful. For forty years now, thanks to Hill and the PR industry, the tobacco manufacturers have staved off serious regulation. Even today, as the annual global carnage amounts to millions of tobacco deaths, the modern tobacco barons are sitting pretty.

Sitting pretty? Yes, because smoking's bottom line is that the industry makes more money off tobacco than ever, and is now opening up the vast Asian market to its deadly addiction. The future for tobacco profits are bright, thanks in very large part to public relations.

External links

  • Scott M. Cutlip, "The Tobacco Wars: A Matter of Public Relations Ethics," Journal of Corporate Public Relations, 1992-93, Volume 3.
  • Richard W. Pollay, "Propaganda, Puffing and the Public Interest," PR Review, Fall, 1990.

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