Ads from the Edge: Before We Knew the Truth About Smoking

Posted by Nikhil Swaminathan

In the pilot of AMC's hit drama Mad Men, the ad men of Cooper-Sterling are challenged with designing a campaign for Lucky Strike cigarettes while ignoring a fact that was becoming clearer by the day: Smoking kills. In the show, it was 1960. In real life, the evidence connecting smoking to lung cancer had been piling up over the previous decade-eventually prompting the Surgeon General Luther Terry to urge smokers to quit in 1964.So what were ads like before the Surgeon General's warning and smoking bans? In short: relics of a bizarro world where either A) ignorance was bliss or B) consumers were knowingly being misled to their deaths.See for yourself at New York's Science, Industry and Business Library, which is hosting an exhibit titled "Not a Cough in a Carload: Images Used by Tobacco Companies to Hide the Hazards of Smoking." A collection of ads from the 1920s through 1950s, it's scheduled to run through the day after Christmas. (Timely, given that one of the ads-a 1951 full pager from Pall Mall-features Santa Claus sucking on a cancer stick and touting the brand's "mildness.")The ads really seem unreal as dentists recommend Viceroys, psychologists shill Camels' ability to give pleasure, and 20,279 physicians proclaim that Lucky Strikes cause less throat irritation. Most galling-and tragic--might be Joe DiMaggio's testimonial that Camels don't take his "wind." (Joltin' Joe died in late-1998 from complications resulting from lung cancer surgery.)The exhibit's creator, Stanford School of Medicine professor Robert K. Jackler, said in an interview with The New York Times that, "This era of over-the-top hucksterism went on for decades, and it was all blatantly false." The entire collection can be viewed at Stanford's Lane Library website, as well.