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Changing Perceptions: Lessons from Bernays

In the classic PR example, the master influencer Edward L. Bernays made green the fashion color of 1934. Lucky Strikes had spent millions of dollars designing its cigarette packs, but the color — forest green — was a turn-off to female smokers, who complained it clashed with their outfits. When Bernays’ initial suggestion to revamp the packaging was emphatically rejected by his client, he set out instead to change women’s perception of the color green. As the centerpiece of his campaign, he famously threw a charity Green Ball at the Waldorf Astoria, where high-society attendees were required to wear green from their ball gown down to their accessories. The ploy worked, green was declared the hot fashion color of the year, and women took up smoking Lucky Strikes.

I’m thinking about that story as I drink my morning tea on my porch, across the country and more than 80 years removed from Bernays’ Green Ball, surveying the ungreening of the lawns on my L.A. block.

Five years of drought in California have turned locals off green, at least as far as lawns go. When I moved here 13 years ago, curb appeal was all about a lush, “healthy” lawn. (I even recall watching one neighbor standing in the rain with his garden hose.) But with reservoirs at a historic low, perceptions have shifted. Where once a brown lawn signaled a homeowner who didn’t care, now it’s the green ones that raise a disapproving eyebrow. Native plantings are the new ideal, but, barring either the personal resources or vision to dig up one’s lawn and install a low-water xeriscape, letting the grass turn brown has become a perfectly acceptable alternative.

In the early days of the drought, as lawns turned lighter green, a sudden effort to nurse one back to health was a sure sign that the homeowner was preparing to sell. But over time, a strange thing happened. New owners would move in and promptly tear out the newly lush lawn and replace it with drought-resistant landscaping. Realtors took notice and now turf removal is high on the curb-appeal checklist before a house goes on the market. Houses are now selling with yards covered in stone, gravel, decomposed granite or woodchips, with small tufts of young native plants and succulents poking through. It looks sparse at first, but buyers are undeterred, knowing that the payoff over time will be an attractive landscape with low maintenance and a clear conscience.

In California, at least, brown is the new green. I think Bernays would understand.