While the first known tobacco advertisement in the United States appeared in 1789 when what is now the Lorillard Tobacco Company promoted their snuff in a local New York newspaper, tobacco products industry has developed the most elaborated and creative advertising campaigns years later, in 20th century.
As America entered the 20th century, tobacco marketers promoted cigarettes as a cure-all product. Claiming that cigarettes could heal anything from weight-loss to asthma, popular slogans of the era spoke to cigarettes’ beneficial attributes. Dr. R. Schiffman’s Asthmador Cigarettes, for example, claimed to “relieve the distress of bronchial asthmatic paroxysms,” ironically enough.
The Second World War would do much to raise awareness for cigarettes not only at home, but also abroad. When soldiers were issued free packs of cigarettes as GI C-Rations during the war, millions fell victim to the addictive properties of nicotine. For the tobacco industry it was a gold mine that would last for decades.
Virtually unregulated following the war and into the 1950’s, tobacco advertisers continued to aggressively promoted their brands. Many refer to this time as tobacco’s “Golden Age.” Free to market their products to practically anyone, tobacco companies began to find “reputable sources” to preach the gospel of cigarettes to the general public. Depicting everyone from doctors and dentists, to celebrities and infants embracing cigarettes, the tobacco industry cleverly intertwined the cigarette with various sectors of American life, and in turn popular culture. Some tobacco brands went as far as to sponsor television shows, and even cartoons, where recognizable characters were depicted smoking cigarettes.
Following mounting accusations from doctors and researchers that revealed the destructive nature of cigarette smoking, a growing correlation between smoking and lung cancer drove competing tobacco brands to embrace the “filtered” cigarette. Considered a specialty item until 1954, tobacco companies began to mass-produce the filtered cigarette claiming that it reduced the amount of tar and nicotine that would enter the lungs from smoking. Subsequently tobacco brands positioned the filtered cigarette as a healthier smoking option.
While the 1950’s were considered the tobacco industry’s golden age, tobacco research on behalf of the Surgeon General Advisory Committee would lead to legislative measures that would alter the marketing tactics of tobacco advertisers. Revelations regarding cigarettes damaging consequences led to numerous restrictions for tobacco advertisers, culminating in the Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act of 1965. The legislation forced tobacco companies to place warnings on all of their packaging on behalf of the Surgeon General, while a 1969 amendment to the act made companies place warnings on all advertising material as well. 1971 marked the year tobacco advertising was removed from radio and television, although the ban went into effect on January 2nd, as tobacco advertisers compromised to allow for one more day of advertising during the college football bowl games on the first of that year.
By 1972 the Marlboro brand had edged out Winston as the best-selling cigarette in the world, while the publication of cigarettes harmful effects compelled many tobacco brands to shift the focus of their advertisements. The Marlboro Man, a rugged and independent male figure used to promote Marlboro cigarettes was originally conceived in 1954. Yet while his persona rarely varied throughout the years, the presence of cigarettes in Marlboro Man ads grew subtler during the 1970’s. Originally depicting the act of smoking in the 60’s and early 70’s, cigarettes in Marlboro Man ads went from visible and in use, to an accessory to nearly nonexistent towards the end of the 1980’s. Although the cigarette has become even less visible in recent years, the Marlboro campaigns helped establish the Marlboro Man as one of the most iconic images in the of the tobacco industry.
Another widely known initiative, aimed to promote cigarettes’ aura of coolness came in the form of Joe Camel in 1987. An ultra-suave, highly sophisticated camel caricature, Joe Camel came to exemplify the cool image Camel and other cigarette companies had been marketing for years. Depicting him in stylish suits, and surrounded with women and luxury, the campaign initiative alluded to an imaginary lifestyle that could only be obtained through smoking. Simultaneously, the Joe Camel image was heavily criticized by the American Medical Association for intentionally targeting children in their advertisements. A 1991 study by the association found that among 5 and 6 year old children, the Joe Camel image was in fact more recognizable than Mickey Mouse. Ten years later, the Joe Camel campaign was dropped, as Camel faced mounting opposition from the U.S. Congress and public interest groups. The once uber-cool, cartoonish camel was replaced by the original (pre-1915), animalistic image of a camel that is still used today.
Today, legislation has done much to quell the subliminal rhetoric of tobacco advertising. On June 22, 2009, President Obama signed a law that imposed stricter regulations on the advertising of tobacco. Known as the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, the new legislation would significantly alter the presentation of tobacco advertising campaigns. By forcing companies to present their ads in text-only black and white format, the new laws serve to further curb the appeal of smoking advertisements.