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Stanford Research into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising

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Early in the last century, when questions about the health effects of smoking became a topic of widespread discussion, tobacco companies undertook a multi-faceted campaign to allay the public's fears. As terms like "smoker's cough" and "coffin nails" (referring to cigarettes) began to appear in the popular vernacular, tobacco marketers recognized the need to counter this threat to their livelihood.

One strategy was to use endorsements by healthy and vigorous appearing singers, Hollywood stars, and elite athletes. Another was to raise fears over weight gain: "Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet."Among the more reprehensible tactics was the utilization of the image of the noble and caring physician to sell cigarettes: Doctors were depicted both as satisfied and enthusiastic partakers of the smoking habit ("More Doctors Smoke Camels"). Images of medical men (and a few token women) appeared under soothing reassurances of the safety of smoking. Liberal use was also made of pseudo-scientific medical reports and surveys.

Our intention is to tell—principally through advertising images—the story of how, between the late 1920s and the early 1950s, tobacco companies used deceptive and often patently false claims in an effort to reassure the public of the safety of their products.

On first impression, most viewers will find these images outrageous, humorous, and so blatantly false as to trigger incredulity. But tobacco industry ad men also excelled in creative genius and had high levels of artistic skill. The best talent money could buy was recruited for this effort. Tobacco advertisers faced a daunting challenge: How do you sell a product which shortens the life of the user by an average of about 8 years? In 2003, the tobacco companies brought to this task a war chest of over $15 billion in advertising in the U.S. alone. Constrained by governmental regulation and fears of litigation, tobacco marketing strategies have evolved over time from the (now) transparent hucksterism of the 1920-1950 era. Companies invest enormous resources into crafting clever and highly sophisticated devices to get their message across (witness Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man). The take home point is that little has changed from then to now, save for the subtlety of the methods employed.