Menthols account for more than 25% of all cigarettes sold in the U.S., and their share of the shrinking cigarette market is growing.
Menthols are especially popular among younger smokers and blackswhich isn't surprising, since tobacco companies have largely targeted their menthol advertising to these groups. (Exhibit A: The 1973 Salem ad shown at left.)
But that's only part of the history of menthols. As this gallery of vintage menthol ads shows, they've been billed as a healthier and "cooler" cigarette since the 1920s.
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Menthol is a type of alcohol found in oils extracted from mint plants (such as peppermint).
The "cooling" and “soothing” properties of menthol cigarettes touted by tobacco companies are real, in a sense. Menthol is a mild anesthetic that excites cold receptors in the mouth, throat and airways, causing a slight numbing sensation that can make tobacco smoke seem less harsh.
Spud brand cigarettes, patented in 1924, were the first to add menthol to tobacco.
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"Now you can smoke all you want!"
Capitalizing on the cooling properties of menthol, early ads for menthol cigarettes cast them as a healthier alternative to non-flavored varieties. These 1940s ads for Julep cigarettes claim they fight "symptoms of over-smoking" such as throat burn and tobacco breath. "Even if you're a chain-smoker, your mouth feels clean, refreshed at end of day," the copy reads.
The myth that menthols are a healthier cigarette persisted long after health claims began to disappear from cigarette ads in the 1950s.
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Kool cigarettes debuted in 1933, and until 1960 the brand's ads featured a smoking cartoon penguin named "Willie." To convey the "refreshing" sensation of Kools, Willie was shown enjoying winter pursuits such as skating, skiing, and sledding.
When the maker of Kools, Brown & Williamson, sought to bring Willie out of retirement in the early 1990s, public health officials attacked it as an attempt to catch the eye of children. "The use of themes in tobacco advertising that appeal to young people is disgraceful," the Surgeon General said at the time.
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"Refreshes while you smoke"
Tobacco companies abandoned health claims for menthol cigarettes in the 1950s, but they never stopped emphasizing the cigarettes' purported "refreshing" qualities.
In its early ads for the Newport brand, the Lorillard tobacco company pioneered the type of subliminal imagery that would become widespread in menthol advertising. Newport ads (like this one from 1960) used lots of blue and green and showed couples frolicking in pools and oceans.
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In the 1960s, Kool began targeting the black community in some of its advertisements (as in this example from 1963).
By all accounts, the strategy was extraordinarily successful. Between 1963 and 1978 the market share of all menthol cigarettes increased from 16% to 28%, and this jump "was due in many respects to the rise of Kool menthol cigarettes and this product’s embrace by the African American community," according to a 2004 paper in the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research.
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"A taste that's Springtime fresh"
Salem was much slower than Kool to market its product to blacks.
"SALEM has a severe communication problem with Negroes," an alarmed executive from R.J. Reynolds (the maker of Salem) stated in a 1966 memo, one year after this charming rowboat ad was published.
While "SALEM's advertising is right on target among white smokers," he wrote, "Negroes do not seem receptive to the current executions and situations, perhaps because they are not interested or cannot relate to them."
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"It gives me a tingle"
In 1970, Philip Morris launched a wintergreen-infused brand, New Leaf, along with an ad campaign highlighting the "tingle" the cigarettes were said to give smokers.
Market research from a test run in Atlanta suggested that the brand was more popular among blacks than among whites. "They taste like Kools," one survey respondent (a black male) noted. "I'm supposed to quit smoking and I'm looking for a new brand that isn't too strong. This might be it. It wasn't as strong as my others. Even if I don't like it too well, it may be better for me."
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"It's Got to be Kool!"
During the 1960s and 1970s, Kool shot past Salem to become the #1 menthol brand in the U.S., in large part by marketing to younger people and blacks. Black smokers accounted for 47% of Kool's growth from 1966 to 1973.
The overt appeal to smokers who were hip, young, and black is clear from this Kool ad from the early 1970s. The outfit and jewelry, color scheme, and overall aesthetic eerily echo those on the cover of Al Green's classic 1972 album, I'm Still in Love With You.
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In the late 1980s, Salem sought to "restage" the brand as the "Industry Standard of Smoking Refreshment" (as an R.J. Reynolds memo reveals).
The result was "The Refreshest" campaign, which featured lots of ice and swimming pools. In this 1988 ad, for instance, a sexy woman applies what appears to be a large, melting block of ice to her neck like a stick of deodorant.
Though "Refreshest" is an invented word, the company's research showed that the tagline resonated more strongly with consumers than an alternative that had been considered, "Pour me a SALEM."
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"Light 'n Sassy"
Women have been a prime marketing target for menthols from the very beginning. Some tobacco companies created menthol brands specifically for them, in fact.
In 1990, for instance, the American Tobacco Company debuted Misty, a slim, low-tar discount brand geared toward women in the 21 to 39 age bracket.
"The MISTY name and its prototype packaging were found to have strong appeal among female Menthol smokers," an internal American Tobacco memo stated in 1989. "Conversely, male reaction, particularly to the MISTY name, was decidedly negative."
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"Alive with Pleasure"
A decade after Kool surpassed Salem in popularity in the late 1960s, Newport crept past Kool to become the leading menthol brand, especially among blacks.
The brand cemented its hold on the menthol market with its "Alive with Pleasure" ad campaign, which ran throughout the 1980s and '90s and featured attractive young people acting silly and whimsical (as in this 1992 ad).
At the same time, the brand was becoming an emblem of gritty urban culture. "Smokin' mad Newports/'cause I'm due in court," the Notorious B.I.G. rapped on his 1994 hit, "Everyday Struggle."
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The cultural and racial overtones of menthol marketing can be seen in none other than Joe Camel, who was retired by the R.J. Reynolds company in 1997 following allegations that the cartoon character was designed to appeal to kids.
Compare the teashades-wearing, guitar-toting Joe in this menthols ad from the mid-1990s to the Joe used in advertisements for regular Camels (inset). Is the guitarist's flattop supposed to signify that he's black?
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"The Perfect Recess"
Not that kind of recess, kids! This is a recess for adults only, the kind where you wear all white and sit in a butterfly chair smoking Parliament Menthol Lights, a mint-green ocean lapping at your toes.
Ads for non-menthol Parliaments typically show attractive young couples puffing away in exotic locales, amid a backdrop of pristine white buildings and cobalt blue water.
For its menthol ads (like this one from 1998), the Philip Morris company stuck to the same formula but gave the water a distinctive green hue to match the menthol packaging.
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"Menthol After Dark"
The themes found in menthol advertising have been remarkably consistent.
Seventy years after Spuds touted their "soothing coolness," this 1999 Benson & Hedges ad describes the cigarettes as a "smoother place to be." And it suggests that tobacco companies (Philip Morris, in this case) were continuing to target their ads to blacks, women, and young people.