Blowing Smoke

Posted May 21, 2014, under Spokescritters

We wanted to cover the advertising hijinks of the tobacco industry — a sector that dramatically influenced Western culture in order to capitalize on the joys of inhaling toxic vapors. It seemed to fit in well with this month’s overall theme of health-related advertising.Blithely, we took to the Internet for material and were quickly overwhelmed by the sheer vastness of advertising that it took to create generations of smokers, to mould public opinion about a product that forms a lifelong (and often life-threatening) habit, which even impacts non-participants.

We’re not here to extoll or condemn, but simply to illustrate the power of marketing. It can turn even something that carried health concerns right from the start into the very symbol of coolness.

Don’t pretend like you don’t know what we’re talking about.

Trust Your Doctor. Or A Doctor, Anyway.

Early ad campaigns took shots at the public’s legitimate health concerns. But as few actual doctors would ever actually recommend the habit, ad men instead fell back on the time-honored (but not recommended) tactic of skewed, out-of-context declarations and false equivalencies.


Or outright lies.

Bring on the Critters

Tobacco companies have insisted that they have only ever marketed to adults. But let’s face it: kids dig cartoons, and in the mid- to late-20th Century, cartoons were often considered solely the province of children.

Also there’s the whole thing where you have comic books – explicitly aimed at the 7-12 demographic – featuring a cigarette spokescritter.

Meet Willie the Penguin


Since before World War II, Willie was the spokescritter for Kools brand cigarettes, and remained so for over three decades. He and sometime partner Millie were featured not merely in print ads and packaging, but in a breathtaking array of displays, clocks, cardboard cutouts – even salt and pepper shakers, because that makes perfect sense.

Willie even appeared in Love Happy, a Marx Brothers movie.

The bird was gradually phased out in favor of wintry scenes, escaping the fate of another famous cigarette mascot.

Joe Camel

Anyone who was around in the late 1980s and early 1990s is probably aware of Joe Camel.

His first appearance as a Camel cigarette mascot was in France, 1974. He was brought over to the USA in 1988 to feature prominently in Camel’s 75th anniversary campaigns.


However, they did too good a job: in 1991, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study accusing Camel manufacturer R.J. Reynolds and their ad company of targeting children, on the basis of more small children knowing Joe Camel than Fred Flintstone. Soon after, a suit was filed specifically naming the Joe Camel campaign as aimed at minors.


The tobacco company pooh-poohed the allegations and continued running Joe Camel ads. Their insistence that Joe’s target audience was 25–49-year-old males fell apart when internal RJR documents from 1974 came to light, wherein the then-VP Marketing explicitly directed efforts toward enticing the young-adult market to become smokers when they came of age.

Finally, in 1997, they caved to pressure from the upcoming trial, Congress, and various public-interest groups. They settled out of court and “voluntarily” terminated the campaign.

Things Are Different Now

Tobacco advertising has become one of the most highly regulated forms of marketing.  This started early, with television stations being required by Federal decree to air anti-smoking ads at no cost to the advertisers. In 1970, Congress ramped things up with the passage of laws prohibiting tobacco companies from advertising on TV or radio at all.

The hits just kept coming, and now you are far more likely to see an anti-smoking ad (which are everywhere; we could do an article just on them!) than a pro-smoking ad. Tobacco companies can’t even overtly sponsor sporting events anymore.

Not even the one sport not adversely affected by the sponsor’s product.

Most recent restrictions, activated in 2010, state: “audio advertisements are not permitted to contain any music or sound effects, while video advertisements are limited to static black text on a white background. Any audio soundtrack accompanying a video advertisement is limited to words only, with no music or sound effects.” There was even word of extending this to all print advertising having to be just plain text, black on white, without photos.

Needless to say, some of these measures are being questioned on a First Amendment basis, but you know what? The tobacco companies just aren’t thinking big enough. They can follow the letter of the law and still have effective marketing.

Just ask Roddy Piper, of They Live fame.

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