Photo Essays

The Design Battle to Sell, and to Stop, Smoking

by Allison Meier on July 29, 2014

"Selling Smoke" exhibition installation (courtesy  Cushing/Whitney Medical Library, Yale University)

‘Selling Smoke’ exhibition installation (courtesy Cushing/Whitney Medical Library, Yale University)

In terms of breadth and controversy, two 20th-century advertising campaigns are almost unrivaled: the drive to sell cigarettes and the backlash to get people to stop smoking. Selling Smoke: Tobacco Advertising and Anti-smoking Campaigns at the Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library at Yale University presents these dual crusades side-by-side.

"Save Your Throat, Get hold of Kools" (courtesy William Van Duyn Tobacco Advertisement Collection, Medical Historical Library, Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library, Yale University)

“Save Your Throat, Get hold of Kools. They’re soothing to your throat. Smoke ‘em pack after pack…” (courtesy the William Van Duyn Tobacco Advertisement Collection, Medical Historical Library, Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library, Yale University)

The smoking ads are displayed in glass cases in the Cushing Rotunda, while the anti-smoking posters look down from the walls. Sourced from the the William Van Duyn Collection at the Medical Historical Library (now digitized in conjunction with the exhibition), much of the eager ephemera has doctors, celebrities, beautiful ladies, and even Santa offering a taste of tobacco. The sterner awareness posters from public health organizations and US Surgeons General emphasize the detrimental dangers of those same products. Today the old ads with the Kools cartoon penguin urging viewers to “smoke ‘em pack after pack” seem almost comically laissez-faire about health concerns, but it wasn’t easy to shake smoking advertisements’ grip on media.

In the coinciding online exhibition, Yale chronicles the steep rise and gradual fall traced by Selling Smoke. In the early decades of the 20th century, cigarettes were marketed to women as a reflection of slowly liberating societal standards, coupled with dancing, dating, and shortening dresses. Advertisers tapped patriotism during World Wars I and II. Things also started to get more competitive in the 1930s, when the first studies were released on the dangers of smoking; in response, both Camel and Lucky Strike incorporated doctors into their ads, as well as advice on smoking to help the nerves and digestion.

In the 1960s, nonprofit advocacy groups such as the American Cancer Society finally sparked the real rise of the anti-smoking movement. Celebrity endorsements were banned in 1964 (leading to the substitution of “ordinary folk,” and the endurance of the Marlboro Man), health warnings added to cigarette packs in 1965, radio and TV advertising stopped in 1969. As Yale states: “Since 1964, smoking rates have dropped from 42 percent of adults to 18 percent.”

With the exhibition presented in Yale’s medical library, there’s a definite emphasis on the health crisis spurred by the ads. Yet they’re also interesting to look at in terms of visual marketing and graphic design of the 20th century. Society needs a reason to adopt any product, whether vice or virtue, and Selling Smoke displays how cigarettes were precisely presented at every angle to form a national habit.

"They Satisfy - Just about all you could ask for" from the Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company (1935) (courtesy the William Van Duyn Tobacco Advertisement Collection, Medical Historical Library, Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library, Yale University)

“They Satisfy – Just about all you could ask for” from the Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company (1935), showing a young woman on a daring date alone on the water (courtesy the William Van Duyn Tobacco Advertisement Collection, Medical Historical Library, Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library, Yale University)

Carole Lombard endorses Lucky Strike (1937) (courtesy the William Van Duyn Tobacco Advertisement Collection, Medical Historical Library, Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library, Yale University)

“When I had to sing in a recent picture,” says actress Carole Lombard in this ad, “I considered giving up smoking. But my voice teacher said I needn’t if I’d select a light smoke – Luckies.” (1937) (courtesy the William Van Duyn Tobacco Advertisement Collection, Medical Historical Library, Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library, Yale University)

"Why did you change to Camels?" with various celebrities including Charlton Heston and Tyrone Power (1953) (courtesy William Van Duyn Tobacco Advertisement Collection, Medical Historical Library, Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library, Yale University)

“Why did you change to Camels?” ad with various celebrities, including Charlton Heston and Tyrone Power (1953) (courtesy the William Van Duyn Tobacco Advertisement Collection, Medical Historical Library, Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library, Yale University)

"Let up — Before your nerves get tired," an ad for Camel with endorsements from a salesman, x-ray technician, & sound engineer (courtesy William Van Duyn Tobacco Advertisement Collection, Medical Historical Library, Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library, Yale University)

“Let up before your nerves get Tired, Tense,” in which a greyhound relaxing after a race is compared to endorsements from a salesman, x-ray technician, & sound engineer (courtesy the William Van Duyn Tobacco Advertisement Collection, Medical Historical Library, Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library, Yale University)

Anti-smoking campaign from the American Lung Association (1982) (courtesy the William Van Duyn Tobacco Advertisement Collection, Medical Historical Library, Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library, Yale University)

Anti-smoking campaign from the American Lung Association (1982) (courtesy the William Van Duyn Tobacco Advertisement Collection, Medical Historical Library, Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library, Yale University) (note the “smoked spiders” in the attic)

"Selling Smoke" exhibition installation (courtesy  Cushing/Whitney Medical Library, Yale University)

“Selling Smoke” exhibition installation (courtesy Cushing/Whitney Medical Library, Yale University)

Selling Smoke: Tobacco Advertising and Anti-smoking Campaigns continues at the Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library at Yale University (333 Cedar Street, New Haven, Connecticut) through August 12. 

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