Teaching Our Journal: Edward Bernays’s 1929 “Torches of Freedom” March

By Vanessa Murphree, University of Southern Mississippi

Teaching the Article: Ideas and Exercises 

This article provides a new perspective on one of the most iconic special events in public relations history and corrects the long-standing myth that the tactic was extraordinarily effective. As students work through the exercises, they will be introduced to primary sources that contradict established secondary sources. They will build an understanding of an important historical example of how public relations professionals try to encourage the news media to promote an event or organization, as well as how a blatant effort to promote a particular product was called out by some editors as a publicity tactic. As students review the article and the primary sources associated with it, they will be shown or reminded of the importance of considering the symbiotic relationship between public relations professionals and news editors and publishers.

Torches of Freedom March

Torches of Freedom March, Courtesy of the Library of  Congress

Some Thoughts on Method

More than two hundred and fifty articles were examined for this study, yet students need to be reminded that 1929 newspaper articles are still under copyright protection, and therefore can be difficult to find online. This article would have been impossible to write without visiting the Library of Congress to view Bernays’s scrapbooks. When copyright protection expires in 2021, researchers may want to re-examine this event when more of these newspapers can be made available online. This is a good opportunity to explain public domain issues to students and to help them understand that many important sources are not available online.

In addition to clippings, the Library of Congress collection also contains notes and correspondence about the event. Students should be reminded that there is almost always more to a news story than that which appears in the newspaper, and discovering the true story often requires an archival visit. Further, even though the scrapbooks contain hundreds of articles (mostly the same wire stories published in different newspapers), even Bernays noted that they represented a limited collection, and that the clipping services likely overlooked many articles.

Also, a large number of clippings that include handwritten or stamped information regarding date and publication name rarely included page numbers.

Students may want to perform their own searches to familiarize themselves with the process of using ProQuest Historical Newspapers, the New York Times online archive, Google News Archives, and Newspaper Archives Online, using search terms such as “torches of freedom,” “Bertha Hunt,” “Taylor S. Hardin,” “T.S. Hardin,” “Easter parade,” “New York City,” and “1929.” 

Exercise 1

The news media still relies heavily on public relations sources for stories. Though the media response to the Torches of Freedom march was different from what Bernays often led listeners to believe, the media clearly did respond to his efforts. As you examine historical (and modern) newspaper articles, consider how public relations might have influenced the article and the editor of the newspaper in which it appeared.

Using the databases mentioned above, conduct an online search for at least ten general news articles related to women and at least ten related to cigarettes and smoking that appeared in American newspapers between January and March of 1929—the months immediately prior to the Torches event. 

Questions:

  • What can you learn about the role of women in 1929 by examining this coverage?
  • Identify and discuss elements in these stories that suggest the work of a public relations professional pitching or otherwise influencing the story.
  • What themes do you find appearing more than once in the stories focused on cigarettes and smoking?
  • What themes do you find in the stories focused on women? How do you think Bernays may have used these themes to pitch his own story about the parade?

Exercise 2

Today, many of us rely on Internet resources to access primary sources. Because of copyright restrictions, this research required a visit to the Library of Congress to review original newspaper clippings.

Visit your university library and ask a librarian to help you find an online newspaper published between January and March of 1929. Scroll through the publication and find at least five articles or advertisements about women and/or smoking. Also make note of tobacco advertising. Next, visit your university archive. Ask to see original copies of newspapers from the 1920s. If the archive doesn’t have them, you can ask for another decade. Find at least five articles or advertisements about women and smoking.

Questions:

  • Compare these newspapers with those you find online. How do they differ? Did seeing the advertisements affect your research process? If so, how? Did the advertising enhance your understanding of the time period? Why or why not?
  • As you searched for articles about women and smoking, what other topics appealed to you? Did you stop to read other articles? Why or why not? On what topics?
  • What most surprised you about viewing a 1929 newspaper?
Torches of Freedom March

Torches of Freedom March,
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Exercise 3

The article discusses how historians have helped to expand the Bernays myth about the effectiveness of the march, and describes how they generally relied on Bernays as their only source of information. Once again, review the news articles about the event. Watch these video clips and answer the following questions.

Edward Bernays 1: Torches of Freedom

Century of Self (Watch 06:00-15:00.)

Sources

Adam Curtis, “Century of Self,” television documentary series (London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 2002), DVD. Transcript available at https://dotsub.com/view/9cfe48bd-cc34-4aac-8d12-1723727de8da/viewTranscript/eng.

“Edward Bernays 1: Torches of Freedom,” YouTube video, 4:42, posted by “Stuff They Don’t Want You to Know – HowStuffWorks,” November 16, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=druOAHVKHCQ&index=3&list=PLroHiLp0ceWSlx4ib1O0Y0EamYuz5x8pc

Questions:

  • Do a Google search for “Torches of Freedom” + “Bernays,” and review at least five articles about the event that show up in the first pages of your search results.
  • How do modern online interpretations compare to the primary sources posted here? In your opinion, why would modern writers and filmmakers neglect so much of the parade coverage, especially texts calling the march insignificant?
  • What images and primary sources do the filmmakers use when discussing the march in the video clips? Are all of them directly connected to the event? Can you identify stock images that were used by the filmmakers to make their points? Why do you think they chose these images? What photographs did you see that appeared to be taken on the day of the event?
  • What themes did you find in your Google search? Did any of the returned articles refer to the primary media coverage? What kinds of primary sources are cited? Are they adequate for accurate historical analysis?

Exercise 4

Public relations professionals are consistently accused of “spinning” the truth to advance the causes of their clients. In this case, Bernays clearly wanted to hide the fact that he had orchestrated the event. But as the article notes, many members of the media saw through the scheme. Efforts such as these are often called pseudo-events because of their false appearances of spontaneity.

Questions:

  • Do you think such events have any place in the practice of professional public relations? Why or why not?
  • Can you think of a modern-day example of a pseudo-event? Another historical example of a pseudo-event? If not, do some online research to find examples. Were they effective? Why or why not?
  • What is the difference between a pseudo-event and a special event?
  • Discuss the role of transparency and disclosure in media relations and pseudo-events.