First, the Admen Stole Feminism-Then They Used It to Flog Cheap Chocolate and Body Lotion to Us

By Penny, Laurie | New Statesman (1996), April 11, 2014 | Go to article overview

First, the Admen Stole Feminism-Then They Used It to Flog Cheap Chocolate and Body Lotion to Us


Penny, Laurie, New Statesman (1996)


In the late 1920s, not many women smoked. To do so in public was seen as unladylike, a signal of promiscuity and general naughtiness. So the American Tobacco Company hired Edward Bernays, the man now known as "the father of public relations", to find a way of selling cigarettes to women. The first feminist wave was still in full, frilly-hatted swing and Bernays realised that women's desire for independence could be manipulated for profit.

Bernays let it be known that during the Easter Sunday Parade of 1929, a group of suffragettes would be lighting "torches of freedom", and arranged for photographers to be on standby. On cue, in the middle of the parade, a gang of hired models produced packets of cigarettes and sparked up. The images were distributed around the world.

It worked like a dream. In 1923 women purchased only 5 per cent of all cigarettes sold but by 1935 that had increased to 18 per cent. Almost instantly, cigarettes became associated with empowerment. It was perhaps the first time feminism was appropriated to sell us things we don't need; it wouldn't be the last. I'm writing this with an e-cigarette in my hand, by the way. It isn't very empowering.

Capitalism has a way of cannibalising its own dissent. The endless weary suggestions that we need to "rebrand" feminism miss how women's liberation--particularly when gently pried away from its more radical, anti-family, anti-racist, anti-capitalist tendencies--has long been used to sell everything from cheap perfume to vibrators. From Revlon's Charlie adverts, marketing drugstore scent to the "new women" of the 1970s, to the more recent Dove "Campaign for Real Beauty" (which shows how we can make ourselves feel better about the psychosocial terrorism of the beauty ideal by rubbing in a bit of body lotion), every groundswell of idealism has salesmen scampering in its wake.

Recently an advert produced by Snickers in Australia featured construction workers shouting feminist statements. "You want to hear a filthy word?" they yell from their scaffolding. "Gender bias!"

The advert's punchline--"You're not yourself when you're hungry"--manages to be offensive on a number of levels, not least by implying that manual labourers in their natural state are rude, aggressive boors. As was quickly observed, if this is how men behave when they haven't eaten cheap chocolate there's a good argument for never feeding them again.

Advertising is one of the sites where profound cultural battles are played out in public. Posters selling cosmetic surgery appear far more rarely on the London Underground since they began to be defaced and stickered over with messages about sexism and self-image. …

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