Mad Men’s Peggy and the Truth About Cigarette Branding

Mad Men is hooked on cigarettes. And it just can’t stop. In the first scene of 2007’s pilot–set in 1960 and titled “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”–Don Draper talks with a waiter about Old Gold vs. Luckies. He shortly learns that they’re all poisonous. The theme continues, wafting through Don’s controversial “Why I’m quitting tobacco” ad to the last scene from this past season, when he lights up while entering a bar, soon to be approached by a boldly independent woman. And speaking of that final episode, just what was the top-secret “ladies’” brand that Peggy Olson had been assigned to study, name and sell? Hmmm…

The year was 1967. And in the real world, Leo Burnett was developing Virginia Slims for Philip Morris. The magazine and TV campaign launched the following summer, and it was an instant success. But according to Burnett VP and creative director Hal Weinstein, the pitch for this “women only” product was actually created by a team of 15 men.

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The print ads were straightforward adaptions of the broadcast spots: up top, a wittily farcical sepia-toned scene of the bad, old pre-emancipatory days with a brief caption. And below was a young, slender, fashionable, self-assured model surrounded by white space, the Walter Landor designed package and the tagline.

Ah, yes: that most memorable tagline. “You’ve come a long way, baby.” It ran for decades. It was also a landmark in exploiting the civil rights and burgeoning feminist movements to sell feelings of empowerment, suggestions of slimness and, primarily, cancer stick chic.

Even back in those days, it was common knowledge that smoking was dangerous. And in the early 1970s the Surgeon General’s warning labels began to appear. Further research verified that nicotine is an addictive drug, and that the rise in sales for Virginia Slims–which Altira Group continues to market to a “liberated woman” demographic–was linked to the increase in smoking among girls from 14 to 17. And women have come a long way since those original ads: recent reports confirm that they’re now practically equal to men in deaths from lung cancer.

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The last cigarette commercial in America aired on Johnny Carson’s Tonight in 1971. It was for Virginia Slims. But back to that other TV show.

Of all the original characters, Peggy’s story arc has been the most progressive, both personally and professionally. From fresh-faced innocent straight out of secretarial school to copywriter, she’s now advanced to the point of barking orders at her subordinates at another agency. And this Sunday, we’ll tune in to see how far she’s come since her work on that campaign. But it seems unlikely anyone will call her “baby.”

In his contribution to Steven Heller’s new book, “Writing and Research for Graphic Designers,” Michael Dooley gives the behind-the-scenes story about his Print magazine interview with Mike Salisbury, the creator of Joe Camel.

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Advertising has also come a long way, baby. It’s time to find out how to manage all those clients that crave interactive designs. Get started with the 40 Better Ways to Work with Interactive Clients design tutorial.

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