A view from Dave Trott: The fiction of history
A view from Dave Trott

The fiction of history

I was at art school in New York in the late 1960s.

It was the days of mass protests: women’s lib and bra-burning. 

I remember it happening all over America.

I remember all the bras burning at different protest events on the news every night. 

I remember women all over the USA burning their bras to express their independence.

Except I don’t. 

Because, although I think I remember it, it never happened.

No-one burned their bras.

What happened was a great example of how the human mind works.

How a simple, catchy mnemonic dominates anything complicated. 

How a catchy line goes viral in an instant.

It began in Atlantic City in 1968.

Some young female activists wanted a disruptive act to launch a women’s liberation movement. 

They decided the best place would be the Miss America pageant.

They felt it exemplified the male attitude to women.

Parading them like prize animals to win rosettes.

So the main part of their protest was on the boardwalk outside the contest: they paraded a sheep with a crown.

They also had a "freedom trash can" into which women dumped "instruments of oppression". 

High heels, false eyelashes, stockings, curlers, hairspray, make-up, corsets, brassieres, suspenders, Playboy and Cosmopolitan magazines. 

None of it was burned, as it would have been a fire hazard on the wooden boardwalk.

But a young female reporter on a local paper compared the protest to young men burning their draft cards in protest at Vietnam.

Her sub-editor couldn’t list everything in the headline, so he picked one item.

The headline he ran said: "BRA-BURNERS BLITZ BOARDWALK."

And a mnemonic was born out of a simple piece of alliteration.

The mass-market New York Post immediately picked it up: "BRA BURNERS AND MISS AMERICA."

If it was in the newspapers, it must be a fact.

So the TV news picked it up.

Which meant comedians picked it up.

Which meant it became a cliché: an expression so commonly used, it became part of accepted language.

But, actually, it was all invented by the media.

As Robin Morgan, one of the organisers of the protest, said: "No bras were burned, that’s a media myth."

It was mentioned once, then caught on and spread in the public imagination like wildfire.

It’s worth remembering that when we want something to go viral.

The real viral media is the human mind.

How you stake a claim in the mind is with a simple, memorable catchphrase.

Otherwise known as a mnemonic.

"Burn your bra" was a mnemonic.

"Put instruments of oppression in the garbage" wasn’t a mnemonic.

Mnemonics stake a claim in the human mind.

Years later, Gordon Smith and I won a silver D&AD award for an ad for Ambre Solaire suntan lotion.

The picture showed a topless model sunbathing.

The headline said: "The Only Thing A Woman Should Burn Is Her Bra."

We won an award for something that never happened.

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three.