Sunday, August 12, 2007

Cigarette commercials

In the 1880s when ‘Buck’ Duke purchased the Bonsack machine, which enabled the mass production of cigarettes for the first time, he was able to produce cigarettes much more cheaply than his competitors. However cigarettes in these days were an unpopular form of consuming tobacco – most was consumed as pipe tobacco, cigars or chewing tobacco.

Duke created a mass market for tobacco through, among other things, advertising his low cost cigarettes. His profit margins were close to 100% but he reinvested 20% of sales revenue in advertising. He did indeed create a mass market and, by 1910, Duke had turned his firm from a small enterprise into the American Tobacco Monopoly – the third largest firm in the US with subsidiaries in China and Australia. This firm was split up under the Sherman Act in 1911.
The cigarette century was initiated – by 1920 cigarettes were the major form of tobacco consumption in the US and 20 years later an epidemic of lung cancer developed.

Between 1920 and 1950 smokers enjoyed a brief period of respite of peace-of-mind before the connections between smoking and cancer became manifest. The first major scientific reports were published in 1950. What is interesting is that well before 1950 the tobacco companies were obviously concerned with the harmful health implications of smoking. Issues of ‘taste’ were counter posed against those of claimed ‘mildness’ and ‘smoothness’ in numerous commercials and advertisements for cigarettes.

Tobacco products are relatively homogeneous so that market share can only be sought by differentiating in terms of image, claimed health advantages and claimed taste characteristics. A recent survey of cigarette advertising is here.

Some of these early commercials are interesting to look at. It is also interesting to see how the resources of YouTube and the Web can be used to get a glimpse of what was happening 60 years ago. Archives of interesting material are being compiled and being made available online.

Early cigarette commercials

This is a great collection of filmed TV commercials for cigarette products – the earliest dating back to 1897. There are also many anti-smoking statements. Can you recall the prosecutor who always lost to Perry Mason? He was Hamilton Burger the actor William Talman who made one of the early anti-smoking commercials 6 weeks before he died from lung cancer. His wife also died from the same disease. (Top page 1).

These are some of the particular ads that caught my attention:

Not an ad but a 1947 anti-ad by Tex Morton ‘Smoke, Smoke, Smoke, That Cigarette’. Yep, poor old Tex - he died of cancer. Note the clear early indication of the addictive, harmful character of smoking.

A 1948 ad for Chesterfield – preferred by ‘professional smokers’ and Perry Como! These cigarettes don’t irritate the throat!

Here’s an ad from 1949 for Camels – more doctors smoke Camels! The ad obviously emphasises health issues but, again, was released before major research in 1950 showing links between smoking and cancer in 1950. In fact most printed ads in the 1940s and 1950s emphasised some kind of health advantages from smoking particular brands. A good collection is here.

An ad from 1948 for Lucky Strike. A longer ad (with woman) from 1950s. No mention of health issues in either.

A Winston ad featuring the Flintstones from the 1950s.

An ad for Chesterfields in the 1950s – cigarettes provided by Chesterfield are safe – they are much milder.

An ad for Camels from 1952 addressed to women. Mild – doesn’t harm the throat.

Steve McQueen’s ad from the 1960s for Viceroys. McQueen died from lung cancer in 1980.

Tareyton from the 1960s – smokers of these carcinogens would rather fight than switch. Emphasises health properties of filter and of course – keeping the faith – don’t switch brands.

One of the most successful advertising campaigns of all time from around 1950 – I still remember the jingle that was used up to 1960 ‘filter, flavour, flip top box’. Come to Marlboro Country! This is one analysis.

Around 1969 the tobacco companies offered women freedom and their own unique supply of carcinogens – Virginia Slims. The last TV commercial for cigarettes in the US was for Virginia Slims – telecast in 1971.

Finally, this is a very gripping anti-tobacco message produced in Australia.


davidp said...

Hi Harry,
Last night on "worst jobs in history", what was judged to be the worst job during the industrial revolution was working in a match factory (poisonous conditions). The growth in demand was linked to the growth in demand for cigarettes - could there have been greater growth in the (poorer) UK earlier or is their history a bit rough?

hc said...

I think they are wrong David. My memory says that early safety matches were produced around 1850 - well before cigarettes became popular in Britain. The safety matches were improved over the next 60 years.

The Brits up to around 1900 regarded cigarettes as 'degenerate' and 'effeminate'. They preferred cigars, pipes and chewing snuff as far as I know.

davidp said...

Thanks Harry! I thought it might be the case. Another fun "anti-ad" for cigarettes was "Kent's Theme" by the Celibate Rifles (an Australian punk band from the 1980s). There was a video but it is not up on Youtube. There is a version by Kent Steedman (one of the guitarists) and the Tubular Greens though: