The Smoking Gun: A Brief History of Cigarette Commercials

philip morris ad

This Guy's Got It All
-- Sinewy guns, a manly job hoisting milk pails and a high-class dame lighting his smokes. Now if he could just shake that annoying cough and see someone about the blood in his spittle.

Much has been said about America's love affair with the automobile, but that relationship seems shallow compared to the more torrid long-running tryst with the cigarette.

In the mid-1960's upwards of $180 million was spent annually on TV advertising for cigarettes -- a lot of money even back then.

Cigarette commercials have been banned on US TV since January 2, 1971. (The last one was a Virginia Slims commercial on the Johnny Carson Show the night before.) But until then, cigarette commercials dominated TV advertising. Some were clever and some were not.

Let's take a brief look back...

Welcome to Marlboro Country
Though originally launched as a product targeted toward women, Marlboro came to personify the rugged individual of the Old West. The imagery was so strong that a cowboy on a billboard was enough to suggest the brand.

The strange time-twisted reality of the Marlboro campaign was not that cowboys in the 1800's smoked Marlboros but that there were still guys out there with cowboy hats, horses and spurs, driving cattle across the plains.

Ironically, the rumor was that even during it's heyday, Marlboro didn't sell as well west of the Mississippi where Chesterfield was the more preferred brand.

Winston Tastes Good Like A Cigarette Should
This is one of the least creative marketing campaigns of all time. Could a product claim be any more vapid or vague? Did other brands not taste like a cigarette should? And speaking of should, shouldn't it be "as a cigarette should?"

A simple-Simon rhyme matched with a clunky jingle. This commercial ranks at the bottom of the Apocalypzia ad scale.

Product Placements?
We can't even imagine Dr. McDreamy lighting up after a particularly grueling neuro-surgerical operation on Grey's Anatomy, but there was a time when stars of popular TV shows did in-character commercials. They weren't exactly product placements, but something close. Listen to my story of a man named Jed...

Even Fred and Barney got into the act.

Show Us Your Lark Pack
During the time that cigarette commercials were allowed on television some of the best minds on Madison Avenue created them. The following Lark commercial is not an example of their best work.

The great Stan Freeberg spoofed the Lark commercial in a way that only he could.

Seeing the Masked Man and his faithful Indian companion in, perhaps, a final cameo was the perfect payoff for this commercial. A special treat for Lone Ranger fans was seeing stoic Jay Silverheels break character to get the last laugh.

He has even more fun with his Tonto character here.

See other Apocalypzia posts from the TV Commercials Category.