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An analysis of the smoking debate ahead of Bernays’ “Torches of Freedom” campaign through the lens of the New York Times coverage (1870–1929)

Martina Topić (Leeds Business School, Leeds Beckett University, Leeds, UK)

Journal of Historical Research in Marketing

ISSN: 1755-750X

Article publication date: 28 October 2021

Issue publication date: 18 November 2021




The purpose of this paper is to analyse the social debate on women, health and smoking in the New York Times from 1870 until 1929. The paper aimed to establish whether smoking for women was a form of oppression and whether it was publicly known that smoking is harmful in decades preceding the “Torches of Freedom” campaign run by Edward L. Bernays. This criticism for engineering women’s smoking, and thus harming women’s health up to today causes harm to the reputation of the public relations (PR) industry.


Articles were analysed per decade and a total of 294 articles from the New York Times was analysed. The coverage was analysed using two themes, smoking and health and women and smoking and discourse analysis have been carried out on articles in these themes to explore what was known of smoking and whether the social perception of women smoking was oppressive and could be seen as a woman’s issue that “Torches of Freedom” addressed.


Findings show that it was not known that cigarettes were harmful to health and that smoking can be seen as constituting part of women’s oppression in the US before the “Torches of Freedom” campaign. The oppression of women who smoked intensified during the 1920s and Bernays’ Torches of Freedom campaign directly addressed an existing social issue rather than engineering a campaign and manipulating women to start smoking.

Practical implications

The paper highlights the revolutionary potential in Bernays’ campaign. This could inspire researchers and consumers to keep on critically reflecting on PR campaigns while still appreciating any progressive agenda they might contribute to. Simultaneously, PR practitioners may take away from the article that a message of social relevance may just be more memorable than the advertised brand itself.


This paper engages with the coverage of the New York Times, a newspaper that is often mentioned in the context of the “Torches of Freedom” campaign success and explores in detail what the debate on smoking, health and women were in nearly 60 years preceding the much-criticised campaign.



Topić, M. (2021), "An analysis of the smoking debate ahead of Bernays’ “Torches of Freedom” campaign through the lens of the New York Times coverage (1870–1929)", Journal of Historical Research in Marketing, Vol. 13 No. 3/4, pp. 214-230.



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