Series: Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way
It Ain’t Easy Bein’ Green
(This is the seventh entry in a series on The American Way. Be sure to start with Entry 1 in order to understand the following material in context.)
The previous two entries in this blog series revealed how “The Father of Spin,” Public Relations pioneer Edward L. Bernays, helped the American Tobacco Company in the late 1920s convince women to Reach for a Lucky Instead of A Sweet, and then choreographed a publicity stunt that went a long way toward convincing women across the whole country to flout the taboo of that era against women smoking in public.
But in spite of the fact that both of these PR campaigns seemed successful in increasing the percentage of women smoking Luckies—and smoking them in public—ATC head honcho George Washington Hill still wasn’t satisfied with Lucky Strikes’ share of the cigarette sales in America. So in 1934 he was back nagging Eddie to spin his behind-the-scenes magic again. But the problem this time was much more complex. Could Eddie pull it off?
Hill remained determined to win over women smokers, but company surveys showed that many women wouldn’t smoke Luckies because its green package with the red bull’s-eye clashed with their favorite clothing.
“What do you suggest?” Bernays remembered Hill asking. The PR man replied, “Change the Lucky package to a neutral color that will match anything they wear.” That was all Hill needed to set him off: “I’ve spent millions of dollars advertising the package. Now you ask me to change it. That’s lousy advice.” At which point Bernays offered advice that kicked off a campaign almost as legendary as the Torches of Freedom parade. “If you won’t change the color of the package,” he reasoned, “change the color of fashion— to green.” [Larry Tye, The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and The Birth of Public Relations. Unless otherwise noted, all further quotes in this entry are from this book.]
Have you heard the Yiddish term “chutzpah” before?
Leo Rosten in The Joys of Yiddish defines chutzpah as “gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, incredible ‘guts,’ presumption plus arrogance such as no other word and no other language can do justice to.’ [Wiki: Chutzpah]
Merriam-Webster online defines it as “supreme self-confidence.”
You’d have to have “supreme self-confidence” in order to tackle the task Eddie set for himself.
Change an entire nation’s taste in colors? This was an idea so egocentric and eccentric that few public relations executives then or now would suggest it and fewer still would have any notion how to make it work. But Bernays’s specialty was determining why the public preferred certain things, then reengineering those preferences to coincide with his clients’ needs, and he set off on his six-month task with supreme confidence.
First he analyzed the color itself, much as his uncle Sigmund might have done. A book entitled The Language of Color told him that green was “an emblem of hope, victory, and plenty” and “symbolical of solitude and peace.” Those were upbeat themes to build on. Even more encouraging were statistics showing that green already made up about 20 percent of the current lines being turned out by French fashion houses.
This time around, instead of latching on to a ready-made “event” (as he did by placing his “torches of liberty” girls at the famous New York Easter Parade), Eddie set about creating his own grand spectacle as the centerpiece of his plan to “change an entire nation’s taste in colors.”
He settled on a Green Ball, to be held at the stately Waldorf-Astoria and attended by New York’s leading debutantes, with proceeds going to some deserving charity. And he found the ideal hostess: Mrs. Frank A. Vanderlip, chairwoman of the Women’s Infirmary of New York and wife of the former chairman of the National City Bank. [That’s her on the left below, at some prestigious event during the same era.]
All Mrs. Vanderlip needed to know, Bernays decided, was that proceeds would buy milk for undernourished kids, furnish clothing to cardiac patients, and support other projects at the infirmary. “I explained,” he wrote later, “that a nameless sponsor would defray the costs up to $ 25,000; our client would donate our services to promote the ball; the color green would be the ball’s motif and the obligatory color of all the gowns worn at the ball. “I added, ‘I can assure you the cause is not Paris green, a poison.’”
But just because a woman bought a special ball gown for a special event doesn’t mean its color would predominate her taste. Eddie thought of that.
The fashion and accessories industries were his next target. A Green Ball would require not just green gowns but also, Bernays insisted, green gloves and green shoes, green handkerchiefs, green bandeaux, and, yes, green jewelry. [Below… green watch from the same era]
He began by approaching the Onondaga Silk Company, filling in its enterprising president, Philip Vogelman, on plans for the ball and suggesting he could be at the leading edge of the move to green— if he moved fast. Vogelman signed up and invited fashion editors to the Waldorf for a Green Fashions Fall Luncheon with, of course, green menus featuring green beans, asparagus-tip salad, broiled French lamb chops with haricots verts and olivette potatoes, pistachio mousse glacé, green mints, and crème de menthe.
The head of the Hunter College art department gave a talk entitled “Green in the Work of Great Artists,” … [such as this by Renoir]
…and a noted psychologist enlightened guests on the psychological implications of the color green. The press took note, with the New York Sun headline reading, “It Looks Like a Green Winter.” The Post predicted a “Green Autumn,” and one of the wire services wrote about “fall fashions stalking the forests for their color note, picking green as the modish fall wear.”
Oh, but if milady started wearing mostly green frocks, wouldn’t they clash with the décor in her home, and lead her to quickly resort to other colors for her wardrobe as soon as she realized green wasn’t “working out”? Not to worry. Eddie was one step ahead of her dilemma.
But what if the new green clothing clashed with people’s drapes, curtains, or other house decor? A Color Fashion Bureau, organized under the auspices of Onondaga Silk, was there with advice, sending 1,500 letters on the up-and-coming color to interior decorators, home-furnishings buyers, art industry groups, and clubwomen. The bureau also sent 5,000 announcements to department stores and merchandise managers.
Wouldn’t green clash with people’s summertime skin color? Not at all, according to this campaign advisory: Green “is most becoming to all degrees of burns— from the first strawberry flush to the last Indian brown. Since beach life provides the highest degree of visibility for (and of) ladies, green is naturally highly successful for bathing suits and beach ensembles.”
And as usual with Eddie’s machinations, the Spin very quickly began spinning…or rolling…under its own steam!
By now the bandwagon seemed to be rolling on its own. Mrs. Vanderlip enlisted for her invitation committee luminaries like Mrs. James Roosevelt, Mrs. Walter Chrysler, Mrs. Irving Berlin, and Mrs. Averell Harriman. Altman’s and Bonwit Teller filled their Fifth Avenue windows with green gowns, suits, and accessories, and Vogue ran two pages of sketches of the green dresses to be brought to New York from Paris.
That may have included this fashionable French gown (or one much like it) from the period:
Bernays was particularly delighted when “the unsuspecting opposition gave us a boost: the November magazine advertisements for Camel cigarettes [shown below] showed a girl wearing a green dress with red trimmings, the colors of the Lucky Strike package. The advertising agency had chosen green because it was now the fashionable color.”
Just months after opening, the Color Fashion Bureau was besieged with requests for information— from 77 newspapers, 95 magazines, 29 syndicates, 301 department stores, 145 women’s clubs, 175 radio stations, 83 manufacturers of furniture and home decorations, 64 interior decorators, 10 costumers, and 49 photographers and illustrators. The lesson, Bernays wrote years afterward, is that “emphasis by repetition gains acceptance for an idea, particularly if the repetition comes from different sources.”
When I first read about this, I was convinced that the source of this level of chutzpah would surely be easy to spot by the sophisticated circles of the metropolitan media. I was wrong.
Another lesson seemed to be that if you trod softly you could keep a secret this big. The official ball program danced around the issue of who was behind it by saying, “Since the fashion trend seemed to point toward green and since green is a gay color for a fete, this ball is called The Green Ball.” A woman’s page editor in Philadelphia tried to learn more about where all the greenery was coming from; when she couldn’t, she sent in this good-natured plea: “Let me know what you are plugging. It is so adroit that even I, hard-boiled old she-dragon, can’t detect it. If, as I suspect, it is glazed chintz, I will add a description with place to buy, including prices.”
The Green Ball came off just as Eddie had choreographed it to.
It was “a gay, vivid night, something to remember,” Vogue reported. Later in the same issue: “We thought the lovely ladies who were all done up in green to take part in the pageant of paintings looked unusually lovely. ‘Green,’ we were murmuring to ourselves, ‘is a pretty difficult colour to wear, taken by and large,’ when we discovered that each lady, before she went out into the limelight, had been made up by Marie Earle so that her face and her dress made a beautiful harmony.”
And then this: “The Waldorf did the graceful thing, as usual, and put a flourishing finish on The Green Ball last week by setting a Continental boîte de nuit. [nightclub] They called it the Casino Vert [“green”] and carried out the colour motif of the ball by flooding the crystal chandeliers and the mirrored walls with a green-blue light.”
And whether the bottom line was that more Lucky Strikes were sold across the nation or not as a result of this specific campaign (it was no doubt statistically difficult to tell), there is no question in the minds of many historians that indeed, “Green did become the ‘in color’ that year.” Largely as a result of the hidden persuasion of the real world “Man Behind the (Green) Curtain.”
Continue on to the next entry in this series, that will expose a few more of that man’s startling and unusual tactics: