In this essay, John Kincaid uses symbolic interaction and cigarette advertisements from the early 1900s to illustrate how symbols are used to shape and reshape society.
One of the things that we work hard on in introduction to sociology classes is to get students to understand how larger level social forces shape the world around us. One of those forces that can be hard to grasp is the power of language, images and interaction to shape our experiences of reality. Social scientist call the study of the way we use shared symbols to help us shape a shared reality symbolic interactionism. The basic insight is that all of our perception is based in the shared sets of social meaning that we use to order the world around us. For example, what’s wrong with the black-and-white picture on the right?
When we see the children performing this particular symbolic action, the meanings that come to us are immediately negative, but why? One obvious reason is because we associate this hand gesture with the Nazi’s and their horrific crimes. But before World War 2 and the Nazis, this was known as the Bellamy salute, and was the official way to honor the flag and nation when reciting the American Pledge of Allegiance. The act was adopted by Nazi Party and Italian fascists in the 1920’s, and the act became so socially distasteful that Congress officially replaced it with the hand-over-the-heart salute in 1942.
How Symbols Can Shape (and Reshape) Our World
What this example shows us, is that in powerful ways, the way we experience reality is shaped by shared sets of meanings that we learn from our society, and attach to the world around us (if you doubt it, would you be willing to perform the Bellamy salute in public? Why not?). What the salute also shows, is that these shared meanings can also change, and sometimes change very quickly. The meanings that we use and share to help order the world are not set in stone, they are subject to change driven by history, current events and politics.
This is where cigarettes come in.
The fact that the meanings that shape our reality can be change, or reshaped is something that advertisers have depended on for a long time. They have found clever and effective ways to use this to their advantage, working hard to shape the meanings that we attach to their products. In the 1920’s the social meanings that society attached to cigarettes were very different than the meanings we have today. While men were largely free to smoke without social stigma, women were not, and for them smoking was seen as a something done only by prostitutes and other women of low morality. For cigarette companies it meant that they were missing out on an entire population that could be using their product. They decided to hire Edward Bernays, who was making waves with his new advertising technique, “public relations.”
Public Relations and Smoking as a Symbol of Freedom
Bernays could be called a pioneer of a type of public sociology, and he used the basic ideas behind symbolic interaction to fuel his PR campaigns. Bernays realized that the meanings are “socially constructed,” in others words, that meanings we attach to things in the world around us are not related to the objects or individuals themselves, but were inherited through our social interactions. For cigarettes, what it meant was that Bernays set about to change the powerful symbolic association that people had between women smoking and immorality. He did this by adopting the language of the suffragettes who were fighting for women’s right to vote.
By the late 1920’s the suffragette movement had reshaped American society. The nineteenth amendment was ratified in 1920, prohibiting restrictions on women’s voting. Bernays used the powerful imagery and language that had been associated with the suffragettes to help reshape the social meanings of women smoking. In 1929, Bernays paid groups of women to very publicly light up cigarettes while marching in the Easter Parade in New York City.
Bernays made sure that the event was well publicized as striking a blow for women’s freedom and their fight against gender taboos. Bernays called the cigarettes “torches of freedom,” giving them a powerful new meaning as a symbol of women’s liberation, equality and independence.
The tactic worked, and cigarette sales to women tripled over the next five years. The new powerful symbolism of women smoking was so enduring that fifty years later cigarette companies still used this strategy to target women, attaching smoking to the feminist movements in the 1960’s and 70’s.
Social Movements and Our Power to Reshape the World
What this example shows is the ways in which socially shared meanings are extremely powerful in shaping our perception of the world. They can change our behaviors, influence our thinking and motivate our actions. The fact that these meanings can be shifted has been the essential insight behind the advertising industry, but also behind social movements. The civil rights movement sought to shift the meanings that society at large associated with African Americans, and the LGBT movements have sought to do the same thing for their constituents. Both have been successful in powerful ways. But if the study of symbolic interaction teaches us anything, it is that meanings can be reshaped, meaning that the victories of social movements, like the legalization of same-sex marriage, abortion rights and voting rights, are not necessarily permanent. Many other movements are fighting hard under the belief that they can undo these changes, using the same methods, to shift public meanings and change society to fit their own vision of what reality should be.
- What were some of the powerful symbolic images that the civil rights movements used? How did they connect with shared meanings that we had as a society and as a country?
- What are some other ways that advertisers use powerful symbols to create meaning for their product? What brands or advertisements can you think of?
- What power might individuals have to challenge shared meaning and re-shape those meanings in new ways?
- What other social movements can you think of that have attempted to adopt powerful symbols to help spread their message?