Old Cigarette Ads Evoke Smoky Nostalgia
A phalanx of white-coated doctors endorses Camel cigarettes in an exhibit that opened this week at the New York Public Library.
Movie stars and baseball greats are there, too, in tobacco ads dating from the 1920s to the 1950s. Even Santa Claus is there, puffing on a Pall Mall.
The exhibit, titled "Not a Cough in a Carload: Images Used by Tobacco Companies to Hide the Hazards of Smoking," opened Tuesday and will be at the library’s Science, Industry and Business branch on Madison Avenue through Dec. 26.
It was curated by Dr. Robert Jackler, an associate dean of continuing medical education at Stanford University.
Jackler said he and his wife, Laurie, chose the images from about 5,000 tobacco ads he began collecting when his mother, a longtime smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer. She died last year.
"For us, this was a memorial to her," Jackler said in a telephone interview.
The exhibit features hundreds of ads from such magazines as Life and the Saturday Evening Post, digitally enhanced to restore faded colors.
In a Camel campaign from 1946 to 1952, doctors are seen peering into microscopes, making house calls and announcing, "It’s a boy!"
The ads proclaim that a survey had shown "more doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette."
In that survey, Jackler said, doctors attending medical conventions were given cartons of Camels and then asked to name their favorite cigarette brand.
Many of the ads make claims that seem laughable now, when packs of cigarettes come emblazoned with warnings about "serious risks to your health."
The vintage ads claim cigarettes improve your disposition and aid your digestion. "Scientific tests" prove that Lucky Strikes and Chesterfields are milder than other cigarettes.
Jackler said the intent of cigarette advertising is the same now as it was half a century ago - to induce people, especially young people, to smoke.
"You’d make a big mistake if you said they were bad then and they’re good now," he said. "The messages are exactly the same."
Faced with criticisms of their advertising campaigns, tobacco companies have said the ads are intended not to encourage kids to smoke, but to persuade adult smokers to switch brands.
R.J. Reynolds says on its Web site: "Marketing standards for tobacco products should minimize the exposure of minors to tobacco advertising, be consistent with constitutional protections and provide information allowing adults to make an informed choice."
Cigarette ads have long used images of nubile youth to suggest that smoking will make you attractive to the opposite sex.
The message was not subtle in the 1920s. A Lucky Strike campaign in the exhibit shows slender, good-looking people shadowed by the rotund silhouettes that await them if they don’t start smoking.
The tag line is, "Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet."
According to the exhibit’s wall text, the campaign was derailed when the candy industry threatened litigation.
"You walk through there, and it makes you want to smoke," said Jackler, 54. "These ads are compelling even today."
Ads in the exhibit show movie stars, athletes and cultural icons like Santa lighting up. Joan Crawford and Jack Webb hawked several cigarette brands each. Other celebrity tobacco backers include Ronald Reagan, Lucille Ball, Marlene Dietrich, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
One document in the exhibit illustrates the practice of tobacco product placement. It is a 1983 letter from Sylvester Stallone confirming that he would feature Brown & Williamson cigarettes in at least five movies in return for $500,000. The letter became public in the 1990s.
The materials were first exhibited at Stanford. The exhibit traveled to the University of California at San Francisco and Harvard University before arriving in New York.
Richard Olive, of San Rafael, Calif., chuckled as he scanned the vintage ads.
"It’s nostalgic," said Olive, 66. "These ads were common in magazines when I was a boy. When I look at them now, they’re ridiculous."