What Those Funny Old Smoking Ads Really Show
Hey, if my doc smokes 'em...
It’s easy to laugh at cigarette ads from the golden age of American smoking—say, from the flapper–ish 1920s through the cool Mad Men—era of the early sixties. The images of doctors and “scientists” reassuring smokers seems to hail from a naive, optimistic time when a pack-a-day habit’s worst consequence was an irritated throat.
But the real message is a bit different, according to Robert N. Proctor, PhD, a Stanford University history of medicine professor who is writing a book, titled The Golden Holocaust, about the global health costs of tobacco. The persistence of cigarette ads with health claims reflected a widespread, though low-level, public concern that tobacco was, in fact, doing harm.
"Not recommended for children under 6"
"The first evidence of people getting cancer from smoking is found in the eighteenth century,” says Proctor. “Mainly lip cancer, but also throat cancer. By the mid-nineteenth century, ‘smoker’s cancer’ was recognized fairly widely as a rare disease of the throat.”
But there was no convincing proof—or even a scientific method for establishing proof—and the unregulated ad market allowed messages like this one, which touted the benefits of tobacco for even the most breathing-afflicted (though probably not to children under 6).
"Made specifically to prevent sore throats"
The early-twentieth-century popular view of tobacco was that it “weakened” people, Proctor says. “So you get this generalized view of it cutting your wind, or being bad for your heart, or bad for vulnerable people, or to young people or to women. It’s not enough to cause a serious threat to cigarette consumption. But it’s enough to make the industry want to combat it.”
Here, a U.K. ad sells a throat-friendly brand, at a time when cigs were associated with dandies and the fairer sex.
Don't quit, switch!
Many companies employed the claims of physicians and researchers, always suggesting that smokers change brands—but not stop smoking, of course.
Yes, I inhaled
“Another worry was that people were abusing tobacco by inhaling it too much,” Proctor says. "[But tobacco companies] realized that you really have to inhale it to get the full effects. So they were encouraging people to inhale.” This ad is from a 1942 issue of Silver Screen.
"Gonna smoke up!"
Menthol, a “cooling” agent, was used to combat the “gotta-cut-down” impulse that resulted from tobacco's corrosive effects. “This played off the idea that heat caused illness,” Proctor says. “One popular misconception was that it was the heat of tobacco that was causing cancer. The idea was that menthol provided a cool smoke.”
The pleasure principle
By the 1950s, massive evidence was piling up concerning tobacco’s harmful effects, and the cigarette companies pulled in their health-claim horns. “It was pretty much a voluntary agreement," Proctor says. "The industry realized that any mention of health effects would only draw attention to the hazards.” Still, there were subtler approaches, including the psychological angle. Cool Rock Hudson swears by Camels while one of the cartoon women above turns into a bitch, literally—because she hasn't had that pleasurable drag.
From the early days of the Mad Men-era
- It was hard for the industry to give up the habit of citing scientists and educators, especially if they preferred your “micronite filter,” as in this 1960 Kent ad. (Kent’s filter was later accused of causing disease because, for a period, it contained asbestos.)
- Filters, Proctor says, joined other devices such as “ventilation” and the addition of menthol, which diverted attention from the tsunami of evidence that finally led to the famous 1964 Surgeon General's Report on Smoking and Health.
Thinner and lower? That's seventies style
The weight-loss angle was decades old, but this mid-seventies ad tacked on a “lower in tar” claim. The government’s requirement of health warnings in cigarette ads—which followed the Surgeon General's 1964 report—opened the door to decades of health claims based on low-tar levels. But in 2007, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reported to the Senate that disease rates in low-tar smokers had not improved: People probably just sucked harder on the “light” cigs.
In the summer of 2008, the FTC
repudiated the tests that measured tar and nicotine. On October 6, the Supreme Court opened its new term with a case to decide whether consumers can sue tobacco companies over deceptive advertising of "light" claims.
It's healthier outdoors
With explicit health claims verboten, the industry turned to images of healthy-looking people (most famously, the Marlboro Men, two of whom died of lung cancer.) Outdoors–iness became the dominant health connotation of cigarette advertising, Proctor says: “The visual representation of smoking, with mountains springs, mountain air, springtime fresh, cleanliness, happy people laughing, always about health, youth, athleticism, adventure, sometimes even risk.”
Tobacco opponents get their kick at the visual cat
Some countries strictly control or even ban print ads for cigarettes and have mandated on-pack visual warnings against smoking, some horribly graphic. Proctor believes there is evidence they curb consumption, though he says it's hard to prove. In Canada, he says, people recoil most from pictures of decayed teeth. “In Brazil, the hint of sexual impotence has had a big effect.”
Is the U.S. slipping behind?
The U.S. lags in the fight against smoking, Proctor says.
“Most of the world is going over to graphic imagery, and the United Stages is going to become, if it isn’t already, one of the laggards in global tobacco prevention. We have some of the weakest bans on advertising. We’re actually becoming a backwater.” Here, a
warning from Hong Kong.
See the entire Stanford tobacco-ad gallery
Most of the images on the preceding pages came from Stanford School of Medicine’s online tobacco-ad gallery, “Not a Cough In a Carload,” which Proctor worked on.