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CVS Extinguishes “Torches of Freedom”

Posted: February 28, 2014, 1:10 p.m.
by Molly Moore.

Edward Bernays, often referred to as the “father of public relations,” launched a 1920s campaign that changed the perception of women smoking in public. His campaign eliminated the age-old negative associations with female cigarette smoking.

Bernays hired women to smoke cigarettes in the 1929 Easter Sunday Parade, but these were no ordinary cigarettes — at least not by name. Though they had no physical or substantive significance, he called the cigarettes “Torches of Freedom.” To simply say this move promoted women’s smoking would undercut Bernays’ actions. He not only promoted a cause; he connected women’s smoking with women’s suffrage. His campaign was nothing short of brilliant.

So let’s fast-forward to present day and look at a more recent public relations move involving tobacco.

On Feb. 5, 2014, news traveled fast when CVS Caremark announced cigarette and tobacco sales would be halted in all of its store locations by Oct. 1.

Much like the reaction of women smoking “Torches of Freedom” in the Easter Parade of 1929, people were stunned by CVS’s announcement.

In 1920, the ratification of the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote. In consequence, women of the ’20s had unprecedented freedoms. When the president of the American Tobacco Company hired Bernays to help expand the tobacco market among women, he did just that. He changed the entire perception of women in the tobacco industry.

In 2014, the health care industry is transforming as a result of the provisions in the Affordable Care Act. Just as Bernays’ campaign revolutionized the tobacco industry 85 years ago, CVS Caremark’s recent announcement is about much more than the sale of tobacco.

CVS Caremark President and CEO Larry Merlo stated, “By removing tobacco products from our retail shelves, we will better serve our patients, clients and health care providers while positioning CVS Caremark for future growth as a health care company.”

Though CVS estimates a revenue loss of $2 billion per year as a result of its decision to stop tobacco sales, its powerful public relations move is expected to pay off in the long run. Rather than being a convenience store/pharmacy, CVS is rebranding itself as a health care provider.

So what are the similarities between Edward Bernays and CVS? They both capitalized on change in order to reinvent a social perception. And it just so happens that both of their strategies involved tobacco.


  1. Post comment

    Your connection between CVS and the early cigarette campaign is excellent. I thought the CVS move an excellent move to rebrand them as a healthcare provider. But I did not know of the cigarette campaign and the link to a women’s movement.

    I am wondering how much the prevalence of women smoking today is still linked, in their minds, to a “torch of freedom”? I’ll know more next week when I ask my class in epidemiology to discuss the Berney campaign (I suspect I’ll need to introduce the details since few of us will know of it) and women smoking today.

    Nice job Molly


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