Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em

December 23, 2010

Cigarettes were once one of the most heavily advertised consumer products in America. Today, when smoking is banned even in some outdoor locations, it’s hard to imagine how pervasive it once was. In the 1950s, nearly 60 percent of adult males smoked.

The story of the tobacco industry has been well chronicled.  But as a marketer, I’m fascinated by how the advertising geniuses sold cigarettes so successfully for so many decades. Some of the ad industry’s most legendary campaigns were for cigarettes, like “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet,” a milestone in selling to women.

Chesterfield, a minor brand today, was one of the top five brands throughout the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. Chesterfield made singer Perry Como into one of TV’s early stars by sponsoring his show, and promoted itself with the memorable slogan, “Not a cough in a carload.”

In the 1970s, after cigarette advertising was banned on U.S. television, the tobacco marketers figured out that if they couldn’t run TV ads, they could sponsor events that would get their name in front of the TV audience. A prime example was NASCAR’s Winston Cup racing series, which was wildly successful for a quarter-century and helped turn NASCAR into a national presence.

The campaign against smoking really started getting its legs in 1952 when Reader’s Digest — then hugely influential, the nation’s most widely read magazine — published a landmark article titled “Cancer by the Carton.” The Surgeon General’s report of 1964, which linked smoking and lung cancer, was among the most significant public health events ever — and not just because it made my dad quit smoking.

Today, with U.S. smoking rates in the low 20 percent range, tobacco marketers are turning more attention to developing countries where they face less social stigma and government regulation.

But as a marketer, I freely admit to a fascination with the creativity, audacity and success that the tobacco industry displayed for so many years.