Red Friday

Smoking wasn’t popular among women until Edward Bernays, the father of public relations, rebranded it. In 1929 he capitalized on the feminist movement and repositioned cigarettes with a “torches of freedom” campaign. Bernays hired women to march down Fifth Avenue smoking as a public display of emancipation and rebellion. Within six years, women were purchasing 1 in 5 cigarettes, up from 1 in 20 in 1923.

The strategy is simple: If people associate something negative with your product (e.g., cancer), change the conversation — “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

Facebook’s rebranding to Meta is your mom at Thanksgiving when your brother begins bragging about all the “honk” he was making selling meth in rehab … just ignore all actions and words leading to that point, and change the subject as if the entire natural state has been suspended. Philip Morris and Blackwater are also good at this. New names attempt to divert our attention from teen depression, lung cancer, and murder, respectively.

A low-calorie version of this is unfolding in the payments space. The stale product formerly known as a loan has been rebranded as “Buy Now Pay Later,” or BNPL. The premise is simple: Buy a product for a fraction of its cost at checkout and pay the rest of it off over a few weeks or months. The good news: Debt is not as bad as cancer. Though it can trigger depression and even revolution. But that’s another post.

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