Stanford researchers’ cigarette ad collection reveals how big tobacco targets women and adolescent girls

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Stanford researchers’ cigarette ad collection reveals how big tobacco targets women and adolescent girls

by Natalie Marine-Street on Thursday, April 26, 2012 - 12:55pm

Old cigarette adIf 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.”

Virginia Slims Ad (Source: SRITA)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 1920s embraced 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.

Educating young people on cigarette ad strategies

Russian Cigarette Ad (Source: SRITA)Despite today’s heavier regulation and a decline in overall domestic tobacco ad spending, the Jacklers warn against becoming complacent. They compare the industry to a “chameleon” -- able to adapt its message to the surrounding culture -- and a “many-headed hydra” -- able to bounce back from regulatory defeats.  According to Robert Jackler, “The industry employs the most talented advertising professionals which money can buy to conjure up ever more clever means of ensnaring teen “starter smokers” to replace those whose lives were cut short by consuming their deadly products.” He points out that cigarette companies, barred from some methods of advertising, are now turning to retail promotional incentives and social media campaigns to get their message out. 

The collection includes photos of point of sale campaigns at local convenience stores to document these strategies. One shows cigarettes displayed beside candy racks, a place where teenagers congregating after school are likely to see them. Other images record recent promotional efforts seemingly aimed at young women, such as pink-themed and candy-flavored cigarettes. In 2009 the FDA banned the sale of many flavored cigarettes, but the Jacklers note that companies continue to push peach, grape, and mint-flavored oral tobacco and mini-cigars sweetened with honey.

The Jacklers want to educate young people about the tobacco industry’s efforts to target them by juxtaposing historic and contemporary ads and pointing out the common themes. Robert Jackler says, “Young women seeing these images at first think they are a joke. After seeing the old images of a doctor smoking and today's women targeted ads, typically teens become outraged at the industry’s attempts to manipulate them.” Working with Stanford Research into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising (SRITA), they have developed a popular website, made the ads available in digital form to researchers, and curated a travelling museum exhibit entitled “Not a Cough in a Carload: Images from the Campaign by the Tobacco Industry to Hide the Hazards of Smoking.” They have displayed it at universities throughout the country, and circulated a similar exhibit in Brazil. They are also tapping into the social media rage with their own on-line video entitled “Behind the Smoke.”

Phillip Morris Ad (Source: SRITA)What motivated the Jacklers to amass such a collection? For one, smoking’s hazard to women: lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths among women – it surpassed breast cancer in 1987. The epidemic in lung cancer among women, notes Robert Jackler, began about thirty years after tobacco companies began targeting women in their advertisements. It can be directly attributed to the industry’s successful conversion of women to smoking through advertising and branding campaigns.

But there is a more personal motivation driving the project, too. One of those smoking-induced lung cancer deaths was that of Robert Jackler’s mother, Marilyn E. Jackler. He recalls the “the suffering and loss of dignity” she endured from lung cancer, and notes, “She has been gone some a few years now, but our passion to study tobacco advertising, marketing, and promotion has only intensified.“ One of the ads in the collection really reminds him of her. It shows an elegant and sophisticated woman who exudes pride in her femininity, holding a cigarette and exhaling. It reads, “Believe in Yourself!”


In addition to his work with SRITA, Robert Jackler, is Sewall Professor and Chair of the Department of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery at the Stanford Medical School and a faculty research fellow at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research.  Laurie Jackler is a curator, digital artist, and writer and a member of the SRITA team. 

Natalie Marine-Street is a PhD candidate in United States History at Stanford and a writer on the Clayman Institute for Gender Research student writing team.

Her research interests include women's, business, and consumer history.

For more information:

Center for Disease Control Data.

Federal Trade Commission Cigarette Report for 2007 and 2008

Smoking Facts: Women and Tobacco Use

Super Slims Ad (Source: SRITA)

More Gender News:

Responses to Stanford researchers’ cigarette ad collection reveals how big tobacco targets women and adolescent girls

Joan Price's picture
28 April, 2012 Joan Price (not verified)

Kudos to the Clayman Institute for exposing this insidious attack on women.