"Torches of Freedom": How Big Tobacco Targets Women and Adolescent Girls
If the nearly ten billion dollars spent by the tobacco industry in 2008 to encourage Americans to smoke doesn’t shock you, perhaps the story the ads tell will. It is a story that has special relevance for young women and teenage girls and feminists of all ages.
For nearly 100 years, cigarette companies have worked hard to attract female customers, and they have been effective. In 2008, 18.3 percent of women (that’s 21.1 million of them) smoked. Research by Stanford scholars Dr. Robert Jackler and Laurie Jackler presented at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research shows how tobacco companies have tailored their marketing campaigns to appeal to young women. Cigarette advertising has suggested that smoking will make women thinner, more self-confident and independent, and more fashionable, sophisticated, and cool. These tricks of the tobacco trade have remained surprisingly consistent despite changing beliefs about smoking and women’s rights.
Cigarette smoking and women’s rights
Over the past six years, the husband and wife duo has amassed a collection of nearly 15,000 cigarette advertisements and worked to analyze the themes contained in them. The ads show that the story of women and tobacco is enmeshed with the story of women’s rights. Smoking was largely a male preserve until the World War I era. Women appeared in tobacco advertisements prior to this time, but they were depicted as serving cigarettes to men, and their fashionable and often exoticized images were designed to appeal to men. This matched a cultural attitude towards women’s smoking that linked it with loose sexual morality and even prostitution. During World War I, however, as women grew more assertive and visible in public life, ads targeting women as smokers began to appear.
By the mid-1920s, market-seeking tobacco companies set out more purposefully to attract women smokers. They sensed a change in cultural attitudes and a reduced threat from prohibitionist forces that would outlaw smoking along with alcohol. To vanquish remaining cultural taboos, they appropriated individualist and feminist messages and presented smoking as a way for women to demonstrate their liberation from confining traditions. In an ironic echo of the giant suffrage parades of the prior decade, one enterprising company marched cigarette-smoking women in flapper-style dress down New York’s 5th Avenue. They called the cigarettes the women’s “torches of freedom.”
The Jackler’s exhibit also shows that for nearly a century the cigarette industry has lured women by equating smoking with thinness. When the young flappers of the 1920sembraced a slimmer and less-confined bodily ideal, the cigarette companies followed suit. Ads suggested that smoking would make women thin or allow them to avoid bulkier figures as they aged. One company’s popular slogan urged women to “Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet.” In the 1970s companies created new women’s cigarettes with names such as “Slims” and “Thins” which today have become the even more anorexic “Superslims.” Says Robert Jackler, “In 2012, women-targeted cigarette brands are almost universally promoted as slender, thin, slim, lean, or light. Some brands have even gone so far as to recommend ‘cigarette diets.’”
While it may be tempting to dismiss these campaigns as quaint Americana from the days before everyone knew better, the Jacklers warn that we should think again. They show earlier ads alongside more contemporary ones to demonstrate the persistence and adaptability of marketing themes directed at women. Tobacco companies continued, for example, to co-opt messages about women’s empowerment throughout the twentieth century. The Phillip Morris Company developed Virginia Slims cigarettes to appeal to women, and their “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” advertising campaign coincided with the emergence of second wave feminism in the late 1960s. In the mid-1990s, the brand used “It’s a Woman Thing” as a slogan, and more recently adopted the tagline “Find Your Voice.” Cigarette ads often feature women smoking together like “sisters” or proclaiming their individuality and their independence from, or even dominance over, men.
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