The Mad Men Guide to Advertising: The Secret Ingredient That Made Old Cigarette Ads so Addictive

old-cigarette-adPicture this: you’re in your family doctor’s waiting room, and you’re feeling really nervous about your blood test results.

You’re thinking back on the whooping cough you’ve had all month, and the diagnosis possibilities dancing in your head are making you fidgety – so you take out a pack of Luckies and gratefully light up. You inhale slowly and purposefully; your nerves and sore throat are at once soothed. You think to yourself, “What did people do before they could smoke in doctor’s waiting rooms?”

Today, we know this is insane, that the paragraph above is littered with a shopping list of issues that are politically incorrect and scientifically false. It is common knowledge that cigarettes are not a healthy alternative to an after-dinner sweet. We know that no (sane) doctor would admit to smoking, let alone recommend smoking to their patients as a soothing remedy to an irritated throat.

If you look back at old cigarette ads, many of them seem too absurd to be true.

When you think about it, it is pretty incredible that we have graduated from having doctors, athletes (and even babies!) pushing our tobacco products to having full-out ban on cigarette ads in 50 short years.

But what if I suggested that the vintage advertising from this era is more than just ridiculous full-page spreads providing a glimpse back in time to a very different era when society was rampant with sexist attitudes, pseudoscience and deceit?

What if I told you that there was a nugget of gold marketing wisdom hidden behind the dated language and complete scientific ignorance?

The Industry that Revolutionized Marketing

babiesBefore hazardous health effects were known, tobacco companies marketed their products without regulation. False claims were everywhere, and people generally bought into the smorgasbord of lies.

As advances in scientific research began to reveal evil truths, cigarette companies scrambled to present rebuttals and reinvent their images. Even with the blossoming scientific proof to demonstrate why people should kick the habit, a positive attitude towards cigarettes and tobacco products managed to stay afloat in the mind of the media (and the United States) for another two decades.

Silencing the voice of these massive companies was not an easy feat – not only because they had so much money, but also because the marketers and copywriters who wrote for them were so good at what they did.

The climate for advertising cigarettes was no longer a blindly welcoming one, and because external sources were always changing and finding new reasons NOT to purchase tobacco products, the companies constantly had to be revisiting and tweaking their message in response to the changing times. In face of an ongoing slew of oppositions to the products they were selling, the tobacco industry had no choice but to constantly be listening to external feedback, pivoting, and iterating their message and image accordingly.

Because necessity breeds invention, the tobacco industry was at the forefront of the development of innovative marketing techniques and wisdom.

The Greatest Cigarette Dispenser Ever Invented

Without the appropriate channels to spread the word, the tobacco industry never could have grown into the behemoth it eventually became.

In the late 19th century, the Bonsack cigarette-making machine upped production from 40,000 hand-rolled cigarettes to nearly 4 million cigarettes a day. This led to mass-production and a dramatic drop in price, ultimately introducing the product to much larger market. Cigarettes were no longer considered a luxury product; they were for the masses. During WWII, soldiers were issued free cigarettes courtesy of tobacco companies, and millions of nicotine-addicted GIs returned home, primed for the slogans and aggressive promotion that was to come.

With their new-found mass-market appeal, tobacco companies exploited new mass-communication channels to spread their message. Advances such as color lithography and television set the stage for the infamous advertisements that we look back on today with disbelief; the television was later dubbed “The Greatest Cigarette Dispenser Ever Invented”.

As the word got out and tobacco addiction spread like wildfire, a select few were beginning to smell something fishy. In the 1920s, health concerns began to surface, and rumors of a so-called ‘smoker’s cough” began to circulate. Then, in the 1950s, Reader’s Digest published their infamous article, ‘Cancer by the Carton”.

This marked a turning point for cigarette companies and for consumers. Cigarette companies were no longer free to advertise as they pleased; effective print ads and commercials needed to have a clear purpose and agenda. And consumers, no longer blindly consuming tobacco or the old cigarette ads that went along with them, began to engage and question the messages that were being presented to them.

Enter the genius ability of tobacco marketers to iterate and turn a perceived problem into an innovative solution.

From Ashes to Iteration

ladiesWhen America began to worry that cigarettes could be causing health problems, cigarette companies began to market variations on a theme.

They insisted that there was no hard evidence that cigarettes could be bad for you, but ‘just in case, you can try our light brand!”

And when the novelty of this wore off and suspicions continued to stir, cigarette filters were announced as a new technological advancement. Tobacco companies confessed, ‘Okay, maybe science is on to something, but not to worry! We’ve created filtered cigarettes to screen out the bad stuff.” Makes sense, right?

Maybe not to us, but at the time it did the trick, and filters stand as a great example of how the tobacco industry was alert, always listening to the concerns of its customers, and responding in perfect synchronization with any issues that arose.

They even leveraged the criticism as an opportunity to shoot down their competitors; as dramatized on the drama series Mad Men, one company came up with the genius quip: ‘Sure, our competitors have poisonous products, but our cigarettes are toasted!” The strength of this slogan lies in its ability to shift the focus in the minds of their consumers; of course, ‘toasted” is a feature entirely unrelated to health. This new slogan brought the discussion back around to taste, and differentiated them from the poisonous brands.

In response to criticism that their claims were not based in any scientific reality, the American tobacco industry founded the Council of Tobacco Research in the mid-50s, promising that the, ‘health of our customers is of paramount concern”.

Lucky Strike Goes to War

One of my favorite advertising anecdotes is about the well-known cigarette brand Lucky Strike.

At the time, the Lucky Strike logo was imprinted in the minds of many, and when they decided they wanted to change the logo, they had a hard time justifying the act seeing as the brand recognition was one of their strongest assets.

Have you guessed that the solution to this problem lay in a marketing campaign?

During WW2, Lucky Strike claimed that the copper that went into making the shade of green in their logo was derived from copper, essential for the weaponry of America’s troops – and this gave way to their ‘ Lucky Strikes Goes to War” marketing campaign.

They were very aware of the patriotic climate of the time, and they turned something problematic into a campaign that appeared overwhelmingly patriotic and generous on the part of the brand.

The anecdote demonstrates how Lucky Strike was in tune with the mindset of the people of that time… and the takeaway here is not to exploit your customers or be dishonest in any way, but rather that cigarette companies were highly sensitive to the environment they were working in and were very responsive to it in terms of how they advertised their products.

They were the masters of identifying problems and fabricating solutions – their products did it all: from comforting soldiers, to making women attractive and making anyone look cool. When America worried their products were dangerous, they were able to switch the focus from “poison” to “toasted”.

Lessons Learned from the Mad Men of the 60s

Any smart entrepreneur or business owner will understand the importance of iteration: adjusting strategies based on external feedback.

Cigarette companies are a star example of this; history is a rolling narrative of discovery and iteration: with each new public concern necessarily came a new branding tactic, or advertising campaign to combat the facts and refute the naysayers.

What can these outdated and absurd old cigarette ads teach us?

Listen to your audience, and listen to other external factors. Respond to criticism as though it is a marketing challenge. And most of all: Iterate, iterate, iterate! (Are there any Audience Business Masterclass students reading?) 😉

Was there a time when you had to pivot your business based on feedback from customers?

Disclaimer: Just in case it wasn’t already painfully obvious, Mirasee does NOT condone smoking or the exploitation of your customers in any shape or form. Please be healthy. And please, iterate in a way that is honest and transparent. Don’t be opportunistic, because your customers will eventually see through you.

About Amanda Durepos

Amanda Durepos is Unbounce’s Blog Editor. Former gallery director and freelance blogger, she has a love for curating great content.

38 thoughts on “The Mad Men Guide to Advertising: The Secret Ingredient That Made Old Cigarette Ads so Addictive

  1. This is a good reminder of how to deal with online criticism. Responding in anger can be very destructive. The effects can go viral and the company looks like a joke.

  2. Hi Amanda…great stuff! Very interesting and informative as well! I am in the Audience Business Masterclass (love it!). I am right in the midst of this issue…iterating and attempting to place my program within reach of the people who need it most by adjusting the language of my description.

  3. Is it not true that all advertising is brainwashing? I guess it is in the definition of brainwashing.

    If you have something that would help better the world no matter how small that something is nor how small the improvement would be wouldn’t you want to share it? Even the smallest of insight passed along furthers that goal.

    I found the article insightful, well written and worth the read. I even found humor in the line, “And most of all: Iterate, iterate, iterate!”.

    Good job, Amanda!

  4. Not to mention sponsoring activities such as the firework competition in Montreal. It has been almost 20 years now, and I still remember – not only the show, which was amazing, but also the name of the sponsor (Benson & Hedges), even though I never smoked a cigarette…

    Welcome aboard, Amanda 🙂 a great post!

  5. Very we’ll done, Amanda!

    Then there’s the harder pivot: reacting to silence. Is it because the audience is nodding silent agreement, or is it the worst thing of all, being ignored / tuned out?

  6. Crazy!

    Back in the day you could smoke anywhere, i.e., airplanes, restaurants, hospitals, move theaters, etc. My mom told me her doctor used to smoke in his office. She’d walk into the reception area and it smelled like smoke. 😉


    These ads tell us that sponsorship works and does over-the-top advertising.

    The Lucky Strikes ad is brilliant. They’re telling women, “Hey gals. Smoke a Lucky, and you’ll be slim and trim because you won’t crave sweets and other treats.” What woman either back in the day or now doesn’t want to be slim and trim? Look at ads today with models and celebrities who are airbrushed and flawless. This type of advertising still works today.

  7. That’s a really good point, Sylvia. Advertisements today don’t just exist in a vacuum – the social web provides a platform for people to engage with ads and the companies associated with them.

  8. Hey Pat – I’m not sure if I think all advertisement is brainwashing.

    What you described in your second paragraph sounds more to me like finding a good customer fit and then letting them know that you exist so you can solve their problem!

    Thank you so much for the kind words!

  9. Interesting! I wonder what it is that makes us remember a brand after many years, even if the ad had nothing to do with the event or product? Thanks Ruthy. 🙂

  10. Hey William! You bring up a really good point. It can’t be easy to decide when/how to pivot if your audience isn’t providing constructive feedback.
    Maybe there are other places one could look for clues?

  11. My mother told me she used to smoke in the halls at school!

    I have to agree with you, Amandah – and ads are becoming increasingly more subtle and subliminal. Luckily, I think that consumers are more critical and suspicious of the ads they’re surrounded with…

  12. Oh, I don’t know. There’s still plenty of marketing for products that are unhealthy. I don’t think there’s a shortage of commercials for junk food products during kids tv shows for instance.

    It’s easy to look back in hindsight with more facts in front of us and feel like we know better now, but there will probably be something we do now that people will look back on in a few decades with the same thought.

  13. That’s a really good point Kristen – I hadn’t considered that.

    I caught myself a few weeks ago with something similar: Dove’s commercial that went viral recently. I was surprised to learn that reception was mixed…

    I’m still not sure how I feel about the commercial, but it is interesting to learn that they are more subliminal angles that didn’t even cross my mind when I was watching the commercial for the first time.

  14. Great post Amanda. You found some terrific graphics too. Nice job!

    I think your comment on smoking to stay trim points to a residual effect of advertising that still lingers. I like to talk to people who do things I don’t understand so whenever I find a smoker I ask them why they love to smoke so much that they willingly stand outside in the rain (yep I’m in Vancouver, although rumor has it our sunny week this year is coming up soon.)

    More than once, a rain-drenched smoker admits it’s still the best weight-loss drug for them. They believe it curbs their appetite. While I know that comes from really successful fear-based advertising, I can’t help wondering why real weight-loss companies haven’t capitalized on it to promote their drug.

    Advertising. It just works. And works.

    Nice job Amanda! Hope you have a great week with only a few moments of wack-a-mole.

  15. I forgot about smoking in schools. 😉

    I hope consumers are becoming more aware. Whenever I see an ad, I point out to my family what the company is doing. The same goes for the media. Sensationalism and fear sell.

  16. Amanda, What a well-written and thought-provoking post. (Hope you’re not getting tired of hearing that.)

    Actually, for some reason smoking does seem to keep people from gaining weight. If you watch classic movies from the 40s and 50s, it’s striking how everyone is smoking and nearly everyone is thin. In fact, back in those days some doctors actually used to encourage pregnant women to take up smoking to keep from gaining too much weight. What appalling advice that was.

    And yet, even today we probably all know people who quit smoking and quickly gained about 20 pounds or so. None of this is a justification for smoking–just an observation.

  17. Wonderful article, Amanda! Although the cigarette industry’s tactics were questionable, their ingenuity and ability to quickly respond to external feedback is admirable. Many companies really struggle with that.

    As a sidenote, they were still up to their tricks not that long ago. I went to college in Richmond, Virginia where one of the big cigarette names (who is also a major partner for lots of well-known processed food brands) is headquartered. As recently as 15 yrs ago, you could tour the factory and get free packs of smokes. College kids would show up for the tour anytime they couldn’t scrounge enough change out of their couch!

  18. Hi Madeleine!

    I don’t know if it’s actually true that nicotine is a weight gain prevention drug, whether it produces just enough biochemical reaction to help people avoid over-eating, or whether it does nothing at all. But I agree that people believe it helps them avoid something they fear. That is where the mystery of belief’s power grabs my attention.

    I think smoking is a fascinating marker of a point where facts and truth meet their match in a well honed long term campaign that plays to the “yeah, I know, but what if…” thinking that drives so much of our wish fulfillment fantasy.

    The more I explore this, the more I see some great copy writing lessons.

    Ok, so I’m sick that way. But I do get to own it.


  19. I do wonder… It could be all the events – personal and others – that were tied up with this experience that helps me remember,
    It could be the fact that I did not even know what Benson & Hedges was and had to ask,
    And it could be what they sponsored (the fireworks) which was so spectacular…
    So finally I can’t tell if the fact that I remember has to do with me, or if it was a brilliant advertising stunt.

  20. Good first post here Amanda. As one of Firepole’s older followers, I was a teenager in the 60s when smoking was considered normal behaviour. Especially in Rhodesia where I lived as it was then the biggest tobacco exporting country in the world.

    That environment encouraged me to start smoking during military service and I smoked on and off for big parts of my life until a heart attack persuaded me to quit immediately and permanently a few years ago.

    I strongly suspect that something else that is now seen as acceptable consumption or behaviour will fall out of favour in the years ahead and suffer the same fate as cigarettes. It may well be fast foods as an earlier commenter has suggested. Imagine if it would be smart phones!

    A proven health risk does not on its own seem to be sufficient, the behaviour (like smoking) has to be portrayed as anti-social for the behaviour to fall out of favour.

  21. Hey Peter, thanks for reading. Happy to hear you were able to kick the habit.

    I think it’s an interesting point, and I wonder what kind of things will fall out of favour in the future. I think gas-fueled cars could be an eligible candidate.

  22. Thanks and I did enjoy it immensely … Many of these ideas came from my marketing ‘studies’ back in the 60’s and 70’s … how to make them (the public) accept even more sophisticated … Hmmmm BS? Have a great weekend yo guys! Rick =)

  23. I really don’t see what wisdom is to be gleaned from this in a progressive, 21st century, ethical business.

    What this article points out is how the tobacco industry constantly shape-shifted in order to diffuse criticism and stay one step ahead of the regulators and public perception. If I had to do that in my business, I’d frankly be wondering why I was in that business.

    “But what if I suggested that the ads from this era are more than just ridiculous full-page spreads providing a glimpse back in time to a very different era when society was rampant with sexist attitudes, pseudoscience and deceit?”

    I’m already saying the same about the current era. I’m looking into the future and hoping that by then, other people will see what I’m seeing now. The current era is desperately flawed in so many ways, and pseudoscience abounds more than ever – you need to think about who’s paying for the study that’s done. You need to think about how clever science really is – it keeps changing – therefore, it’s only as accurate as the people who believe in it think it is – IN ITS DAY.

    However, you do imply one useful point. Corporations do not have your best interests at heart.

  24. Thought-provoking, entertaining, well-researched, and well-written. Great job, Amanda! And now it makes me want to see “Thank You For Smoking” again.

  25. Yea Amanda, you are very right. This post is very similar to my recent post on business growth. Most businesses tend to continue their marketing campaigns without using their customer feedback as a source of keeping their business alive. In the real sense, no matter the number of customer a business has, it can grow and become very large if it inculcates the information from its customers feedback into future marketing. That tobacco company labeled its competitors ingredients as poisonous and probably pushed them out of business because it understood the concerns of the market from an existing customer standpoint. That is the power of feedback.

    Thanks Amanda for the post, it is truly informative.

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