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
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
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.