People who remember when tobacco advertising was a prominent part of the media landscape – and others who recall what they learned in Marketing 101 – probably recollect that actors like Barbara Stanwyck and athletes like Mickey Mantle routinely endorsed cigarettes.
But how about doctors and other medical professionals, proclaiming the merits of various cigarette brands? Or politicians? What about cartoon characters? Or children? Babies? Even Santa Claus?
Those images – some flabbergasting, even disturbing – were also used by Madison Avenue to peddle tobacco products. An exhibit in New York presents cigarette ads from the 1920s through the early 1950s to demonstrate what has changed since then – and what may not have.
The exhibit, of hundreds of print ads and television commercials, is titled “Not a Cough in a Carload: Images Used by Tobacco Companies to Hide the Hazards of Smoking.” The first part of the title is borrowed from a slogan for Old Gold cigarettes, a brand that subsequently boasted in its ads of being “made by tobacco men, not medicine men.”
The exhibit is the brainchild of Dr. Robert Jackler of the Stanford School of Medicine, who described himself in an interview as “an accidental tourist in the world of advertising.”
“The very best artists and copywriters that money could buy” would work on cigarette accounts, said Jackler, who is also chairman of the department of otolaryngology, head and neck surgery.
“This era of over-the-top hucksterism went on for decades,” he added, “and it was all blatantly false.”
The genesis of the exhibit was an ad from around 1930 for Lucky Strike cigarettes, which shows a doctor above a headline proclaiming that “20,679 physicians say ‘Luckies are less irritating.'”
“That captivated me,” Jackler said. He gave the ad to a friend, a doctor who treats cancer.
The Luckies doctor was joined in Jackler's collection of about 5,000 ads by scores of scientists and medical professionals – doctors, dentists, nurses – making statements that are now known to be patently untrue. “Not one single case of throat irritation due to smoking Camels!” is a typical assertion.
“I was struck by the noble depiction of the medical profession, bemused and surprised, actually,” said Kristin McDonough, the Robert and Joyce Menschel director of the Science, Industry and Business Library.
“Some of the claims being made in the ads, you did not have to be a scientist in a laboratory to dispute,” McDonough said, citing ads that smoking certain brands “does not cause bad breath” or “can never stain your teeth.”
Other approaches that could cause double takes (if not whiplash) among contemporary consumers include ads featuring Santa Claus, for brands like Pall Mall; senators like Charles Curtis of Kansas, who endorsed Lucky Strike before he was elected vice president in 1928; cartoon characters like the Flintstones and penguins, for brands like Winston and Kool; children, who appear as accessories for their smoking parents; and babies, for brands like Marlboro.
The exhibit also includes copious examples of more traditional cigarette endorsements by athletes – occasionally in uniform – and entertainers. Some promoted multiple brands during their careers; for example, Mantle, the New York Yankees outfielder, pitched brands like Camel and Viceroy, while the actress Claudette Colbert endorsed at least five, Jackler found, among them Fatima and Raleigh.
A primary purpose of the exhibit, Jackler said, is to connect the dots between now and then. He likened ads from decades ago intended to encourage women to smoke – “Blow some my way,” for Chesterfield, and “You've come a long way, baby,” for Virginia Slims – to the campaign last year from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, a unit of Reynolds American, to introduce a version of Camels for women called Camel No.9.
And there is a theme that runs from vintage tobacco ads to contemporary ones, Jackler said: “It's all about youth marketing. The intent is to turn youth, ages 12 to 22, into youthful smokers.”