6 of the Most Unbelievably Terrible Tobacco Ads in History
Perhaps there’s only one group responsible for the most outrageous health hoaxes in U.S. history: tobacco companies.
Blatant lies—including bogus health benefits—pervaded cigarette ads, and most Americans blindly believed them until the 1950s, when science revealed the serious hazards of smoking. Here, we list six of the most objectionable tobacco ads from the early 20th century to contemporary times.
1. 20,679 Physicians Say
This iconic ad was part of Lucky Strike’s “20,679 Physicians Say” campaign in the 1930s. It exemplifies the manipulative tactics tobacco companies employed—if a doctor smokes it, then it can’t be that bad. Because physicians were at risk of losing their jobs for promoting products, the ads never depicted real doctors. There was no evidence backing Lucky Strike’s 20,679 number. (The small print in the ad claimed that the company’s accounting firm had “checked and certified” the figure.) The brand later dropped it but stuck with “It’s toasted,” a slogan that suggested healthfulness.
2. For Digestion’s Sake
In the late 1930s, Camel ran a campaign insisting that its cigarettes increased alkalinity in the stomach, thereby speeding up the digestive process. “The human digestion responds unfavorably to nervousness, hurry, and strain,” reads this 1936 Camel ad. “It is definitely encouraged by smoking Camels. Scientific studies show clearly the manner in which Camels aid digestion.” In 1951, the Federal Trade Commission deemed the claim false and ordered the brand to stop propagating it.
3. The Brits Did It Too
Cigarettes might have been synonymous with American cowboys, but tobacco brands from other countries used false health claims to advertise as well. U.K. brand Kensitas Club claims in this ad that its cigarettes protect the throat.
4. Celebrity Endorsements
TV and movie stars embodied 20th century glamour, and they were paid to peddle everything from soap to canned beans. Tobacco companies in particular enlisted hundreds of famous personalities to lure consumers. Case in point: this 1953 ad featuring Lucille Ball. By 1964, cigarette companies were prohibited from hiring athletes, entertainers, and other celebrities to promote their products.
5. Targeting African American Consumers
It’s rare to see print ads for cigarettes in mainstream magazines in the 21st century, but publications geared toward black audiences often still promote tobacco. This Newport ad was featured in Ebony magazine in 2005.
6. “Green” Cigarettes
More recently, Natural American Spirit touts its “eco-friendly” and “additive-free” tobacco in its ads. Clearly, it’s targeting a younger, more conscientious audience. “It’s an egregious ad. It’s trying to greenwash a deadly and addictive product,” Vince Willmore, a spokesperson for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, told USA Today. “When you hear a product is eco-friendly, you think it’s better for you.”
TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media, is involved in the production and marketing of 'Merchants of Doubt'.