I Love the Merchants of Death

March 1, 2011

For more than 40 years, George Washington Hill used his marketing genius to sell Lucky Strike cigarettes.

I’ve always admired the great hucksters, and I’m reading a book right now that features some of the greatest of them all. “Ashes to Ashes: America’s 100-Year Cigarette War” tells the story of the growth of the American cigarette business from colonial times to the mid-1990s. Cigarettes hold such an important position in the history of marketing; they were among the first standardized, nationally marketed consumer products. Throughout much of the first half of the 20th century, cigarette companies spent more money on advertising than any other industry. They were early adopters of new media such as national magazines, radio and TV.

And could they sell! Of course, it didn’t hurt that they were peddling an addictive product. Still, pioneering tobacco magnates like James B. Duke, R.J. Reynolds and George Washington Hill were hard-charging marketing geniuses. They didn’t need market research — hell, it hadn’t been invented yet. They had the golden gut — an uncanny ability to instinctively understand what consumers would respond to.

And they were unabashedly shady. In the 19th century, when chewing tobacco users outnumbered cigarette smokers 50 to 1, Duke advertised the “pure tobacco” in his chaw — never mind that up to 25% of the weight of the average plug of chewing tobacco consisted of licorice, rum, sugar and other flavorings.

Later, Hill seized on the tobacco heat curing method used by every cigarette maker and made it his own. “It’s Toasted!” proclaimed every package of Lucky Strikes — never mind that every other cigarette was, too. Luckies seized the advantage and sales soared. (AMC’s “Mad Men” actually used this real-life episode in one of its shows, with the fictional adman Don Draper coming up with the toasted slogan. But it actually happened in real life — in the 1920s, not the 1960s.) 

Later, tobacco marketers became adept at finding obscure medical studies and trumpeting positive findings that were wildly extrapolated from the smallest grains of often inconclusive data.

They enlisted athletes and opera singers to endorse their cigarettes, claiming that regular smoking helped relax them and had no ill effects on running, jumping or singing. They vied to outdo each other’s gimmicks, such as Camel’s famous smoke-ring-blowing billboard in Times Square, a New York City landmark for a quarter century.

They coined memorable slogans: “So round, so firm, so fully packed.” “Come to Marlboro Country.” “I’d walk a mile for a Camel.”

They turned setbacks into triumph, as when World War II broke out and chemical shortages meant Lucky Strike no longer could get green ink for its packages. Luckies changed to a white package and made it into a patriotic sacrifice, running ads proclaiming, “Lucky Strike Green has gone to war!”

They were scoundrels and they were ruthless businessmen selling a product that has killed millions. But I can’t help it — I admire the glorious abandon and native creativity they brought to their task.