• Steven Heller

Smokin’ Ladies

Women have come a long way from the pre-suffrage era when it was unladylike to smoke. Taken up as a cause célèbre, women’s right to cigarettes was a smokescreen in the struggle for more fundamental rights. On the way to achieving first-class citizenship, women became first-class tobacco consumers. And if women were going to smoke, reasoned the tobacco industry, then why not encourage them to smoke a lot? By 1910 advertisements hinted that smoking was a right—and by the 1920s it was a duty.

No expense was spared by Lucky Strike in recruiting female customers. To promote the image of sophistication, a series of 1930s magazine ads featured stylized paintings of women decked out in evening finery. In “OK – Miss America! We thank you for your patronage” a woman wearing a revealing, low-cut satin gown is so above the fray that she isn’t even holding a Lucky, but the implication is that she had just finished a satisfying smoke. In the haughty “I do” advertisement a sultry bride pauses for a relaxed smoke and gives her vow to the cigarette of choice. Cigarettes were marketed as fashion accessories, but these ads, which ran during the Great Depression, were not targeted exclusively to women of means. Using smoke and mirrors, cigarette advertising suggested the promise of a better life.

Advertising wizards also made cigarettes seductive to women by invoking the ideal. High culture was used in one sales pitch that borrowed Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “First a Shadow Then a Sorrow” to announce Lucky Strike’s diet plan. “Avoid that future shadow,” the copy suggested, “by refraining from over indulgence. If you would maintain the modern figure of fashion.” Under an idealized color painting of a young woman haunted by the shadow of a double chin, the copy read: “We do not represent that smoking Lucky Strike Cigarettes will bring modern figures or cause the reduction of flesh. We do declare that when tempted to do yourself too well, if you will ‘Reach for a Lucky’ instead, you will thus avoid over indulgence in things that cause excess weight and, by avoiding over indulgence maintain a modern, graceful form.”

Cigarettes were a staple for Depression-weary and later war-torn Americans. Yet despite the claim of weight control, they offered no viable health inducements. Even tobacco manufacturers acknowledged that frequent product usage resulted in coughing, throat irritation, and rasp-sounding voices.

The last was, however, promoted as sexy. To deflect public attention away from what the industry viewed as minor physical ailments, cigarette advertising exploited certain perceived health benefits, including increased vigor and stamina. Camels asserted that “Smokers everywhere are turning to Camels for their delightful ‘energizing effect’ … Camels never get on your nerves.” Lucky Strike took the homeopathic route with their motto, “It’s toasted.” A typical ad read “Everyone knows that sunshine mellows—that’s why the ‘toasting’ process includes the use of Ultra Violet Rays … 

Everyone knows that heat purifies and so ‘toasting’—that extra secret process—removes harmful irritants that cause throat irritation and coughing.” By the late 1930s Lucky Strike had added the following tagline to its motto: “sunshine mellows—heat purifies.”

Men also played a role in cigarette advertising for women. They ran the agencies, produced the images, and wrote the copy that created the commercially correct woman. But in men’s club fashion they also made fun of their own ludicrous stereotypes. In “Shanghaied by a Silly Salt? … Light an Old Gold” the Esquire magazine pinup artist Petty’s voluptuous gal is hit upon by a licentious old gent, but the copy positions Old Gold as her saving grace: “When a retired skipper proves he is anything but retiring by dropping anchor alongside of you … don’t let him scuttle your whole evening. Offer him an Old Gold … he’ll welcome it like a breeze in the doldrums … while you breeze gracefully away.”

Movie stars and starlets frequently appeared as spokespersons. In a 1943 advertisement, Betty Grable, star of the movie Pinup Girl, is shown in a soldier’s barracks, reinforcing the idea that Chesterfield is overseas “With the boys …” In the same spirit, Joan Bennett, dressed in her Women’s Volunteer Army uniform, lit up “His cigarette and mine,” in another series of Chesterfield testimonials. To soldiers, cigarettes were as valuable as rations; to the tobacco industry the war was a boon. Ads invoked the image of American boys, exploited the image of American girls, and portrayed cigarettes to be as American as apple pie. After the war, men became active role models in ads targeted to women.

The cigarette ads created during the Great Depression and World War II targeted women with one purpose: seduction by appealing to their patriotism and sense of fashion. While the stylistic manner of this seduction has changed since these ads were first printed, the method is still the same: appeal to weakness, bolster myth, and massage fantasy.

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