Classical conditioning is a learning theory centred on creating associations between meaningful objects or ideas to elicit desired responses (Kardes, pp 199).
Marketers work hard to pair meaningful unconditioned stimuli with their brand or product to condition consumers to feel positively about that brand.
I came across an example from the 1920’s that is well known as a piece of PR but which may also demonstrates the effectiveness of classical conditioning and raises some ethical questions.
At the beginning of the 20th century, smoking was seen as a male pastime. Women thought to have loose morals smoked in public
A 1901 New York Times article warned that womens’ smoking of cigarettes was ‘growing to be a menace in this country’ and in 1904, a police officer stopped a car in New York because a woman occupant was smoking.
Despite women getting the right to vote in 1920 taboos about smoking persisted.
In 1929, George Washington Hill, President of the cigarette brand Lucky Strikes, determined to increase sales to women by overcoming one of these taboos – that of women smoking in public places.
Hill enlisted a PR agent, Edward Bernays. (Bernays EL. Biography of an Idea: Memoirs of Public Relations Counsel Edward L. Bernays. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster; 1965:849)
Bernays was a nephew of Sigmund Freud and wanted to make use of the available scientific knowledge regarding behaviour change at the time. He consulted Psychoanalyst AA Brill on what cigarettes meant to women and Brill proposed that women saw cigarettes as ‘torches of freedom’.
Bernays then staged an intervention. He hired a group of debutantes to walk in the 1929 Easter Day Parade in New York and instructed them to light up their cigarettes and walk up and down, briefing them to tell the press the cigarettes were ‘torches of freedom’.
This was a controversial act, staged at a significant public event at a time when womens rights and smoking was an emotive subject. The act was widely reported, not least thanks to Bernays briefing the press in advance. The New York Times ran an article with the headline: “Group of Girls Puff at Cigarettes as a gesture of Freedom”.
Within 3 days, newspapers published accounts of women smoking publicly in San Francisco, Denver and Boston Common. Within 6 weeks, the league of theatres lifted their ban on women smoking.
Supported by lessons to teach women how to smoke and advertising, the tobacco industry continued to target women. The result was that the proportion increased from x to y.
The Easter Day Parade event is known as a successful PR stunts, however was this just a PR stunt – or was it also a behavioural intervention?
Returning to the description from Kardes, classical conditioning is a learning theory centred on creating associations between meaningful objects or ideas to elicit desired responses (Kardes, pp 199).
It seems very likely that not long after getting the right to vote, equality would have been a salient subject for women. Pairing that with the act of smoking certainly appeared to drive the desired response of increased uptake of the act of smoking in defiance.
The subsequent reports in the press of other women smoking in open spaces suggests that there was an impact on behaviour – however these reports could have been made of behaviour that was already occurring, simply because the topic was seen as current.
However, whatever the reason, the repeated exposure to material reporting a link between the act of smoking and protest against inequality would contribute to a conditioning effect.
The metaphorical use of a ‘torch of freedom’ could also have contributed to the effectiveness of this intervention. The metaphor evokes a vivid and powerful image, focussing attention on the product as well as just the act of smoking. The closeness of the metaphor to the product increases the potency of the metaphor – a torch and a cigarette are both set alight. The possible association with the powerful symbol of the statue of liberty and it’s torch that ‘lights the way to freedom’ adds further to the emotional symbolism of this construct.
It could be argued that the association between womens equality and the act of smoking cigarettes already existed – at least for some women. However as well as reigniting this act as a symbol, the additional publicity must have exposed fresh minds to this and helped build this through the Mere Exposure effect (Bornstein et al, 1992).
Kardes also states that: “It is crucial for advertisers to select unconditioned stimuli that appeal to the target market”, suggesting that the choice of a salient subject for women (equality), increased the likelihood of a conditioning effect occurring.
Are there other factors that combined to increase the effectiveness of this intervention?
Maslows hierarchy of needs highlights peoples need for respect by others within the esteem level of needs. According to drive theory, people perceiving a lack of respect by others (such as through inequality) would be compelled to behave in ways to reduce this. Association with other women in this act would also help in terms of a sense of belonging, another need in Maslows hierarchy. Finally, womens assertion of their right to carry out acts such as smoking on the same level as men could also help towards higher level needs such as self-actualisation. By promoting smoking as a gesture of asserting rights for equality, Bernays also tapped into womens fundamental needs.
We don’t have precise scientific measurement available from the time and other initiatives to encourage smoking were underway, so it is not possible to isolate the influence of Bernays intervention with complete certainty. However the intervention and subsequent coverage does contain some of the key features that could lead to classic conditioning.
From an Ethical perspective, in light of what we now know about the negative effects of tobacco, this use of behaviour change raises difficult questions. At the time, the health effects were not well understood. It was almost 30 years later in 1964 that the US Surgeon General started to issue health warnings for tobacco. Bernays himself expressed regret. A recent report in the Huffington post reported him as saying: “This was before anybody knew cigarettes were carcinogenic,” he continued. “I later worked to get tobacco advertising off radio and television to ease my guilt complex.”
Additionally, this intervention took place when scientific knowledge of psychology was relatively yoiung and it’s application in terms of marketing products was even younger. Could there have been a degree to which people were more naive about these effects due to their reduced exposure to them?
Even setting aside the knowledge of the health impact of smoking, the use of such an emotive and charged topic as inequality to effectively manipulate people for commercial gain also raises difficult questions.
Allan M. Brandt. 1996. Recruiting women smokers: the engineering of consent. Journal of the American Medical Women’s Association 51(1-2): 63-66.
Bernays EL. Biography of an Idea: Memoirs of Public Relations Counsel Edward L. Bernays. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster; 1965:849
Bornstein, R. F., & D’Agostino, P. R. (1992). Stimulus recognition and the mere exposure effect. Journal of personality and social psychology, 63(4), 545.
Kardes, F., Cronley, M., & Cline, T. (2014). Consumer behavior. Cengage Learning.
Mackintosh, N. J. (1974). The psychology of animal learning. Academic Press.