Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.  

This week’s entry: Tobacco Advertising

What it’s about: In honor of Mad Men Week at The A.V. Club, we’re looking at the lifeblood of early-season ad agency Sterling Cooper: tobacco advertising. Besides its obvious purpose—encouraging people to smoke—the tobacco industry was nearly always at the forefront of new marketing methods, even as it became more controversial once people realized the health risks associated with the product they were peddling.


John Cameron Swayze reporting in 1955.

Strangest fact: One of television’s pioneering news programs doubled as a cigarette ad. The Camel News Caravan ran from 1949 to 1956 on NBC, and not only did Camel’s logo appear on the wall behind anchor John Cameron Swayze, he also had an ashtray on his desk and often smoked on-air while delivering the news. His show was the first to use news stories filmed by the network, instead of recycled film newsreels, and was the first news program to broadcast in color. In the show’s final year, Camel split sponsorship with Chrysler, and in 1956, the show was replaced by The Huntley-Brinkley Report (David Brinkley had been Camel’s Washington correspondent).


Biggest controversy: Tobacco advertising started with a 1789 newspaper ad in New York for snuff and tobacco, and the ads were completely uncontroversial for decades, as no one suspected tobacco had any ill effects. In the early 20th century, some doctors began to suspect smoking included health risks, but others actively endorsed tobacco brands, with “More doctors smoke Camels” being a long-running slogan. Most objections to smoking was on moral grounds—arguing it was a “filthy habit”—rather than health grounds. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the medical community objected to smoking strongly enough that the tobacco companies felt the need to push back. A 1954 ad called “A Frank Statement” publicly disputed any ill effects of smoking. In language familiar to anyone following the climate change debate, the ad asserted that lung cancer has many possible causes, there was no medical consensus, and the findings were “questioned by numerous scientists.” The tobacco companies would spend decades denying their products’ health risks, only stopping in 1997 after settling a massive lawsuit between the four biggest tobacco companies and 46 states.

Thing we were happiest to learn: Tobacco advertising is in large part a relic of the past. Ads are banned entirely by Google and Microsoft; the MPAA prohibits smoking in films that doesn’t have direct bearing on the plot; and countries around the world have bans of varying severity. Cigarette commercials were banned from American TV in 1971, but ran right up until the last minute, literally, as a Virginia Slims ad ran at 11:59 p.m. during The Tonight Show the day before the ban took effect. After the 1997 lawsuit, ads on billboards, public transportation, and other outdoor venues were banned. Some countries have even banned point-of-sale advertising, meaning that cigarettes can’t be advertised within stores that sell cigarettes.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Bans on tobacco ads have actually reached backward through time. Ted Turner removed any scenes with characters smoking in older cartoons run on Cartoon Network and Boomerang, including Tom And Jerry, The Flintstones (who were once featured in cigarette ads), and Scooby-Doo. A prudent move to protect the sensibilities of young viewers? Or an assault on the artistic integrity of cheaply-made, poorly-animated Hanna Barbera cartoons? You decide.

Also noteworthy: Critics claim Wikipedia is “riddled with inaccuracies,” and in writing this column, we’ve found few glaring errors. The more frequent problem is inexplicable gaps, like this page’s heading “Modern advertising (1920s),” which boldly states, “Modern advertising was created with the innovative techniques used in tobacco advertising beginning in the 1920s,” but then refuses to elaborate in any way. Which is a shame, because that sounds fascinating.


Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Tobacco companies long saw women as a vast, untapped market. But long before Virginia Slims were advertised exclusively to women with the slogan, “You’ve come a long way, baby!” tobacco companies were trying to conflate feminism and smoking with the “Torches Of Freedom” campaign. Although the first European to smoke was supposedly Queen Elizabeth I, smoking was taboo for women at the beginning of the 20th century, and was in fact illegal in some places. But during the first World War, as women took jobs previously held by men, many women took up smoking as well, and cigarettes came to represent “rebellious independence, glamour, and sexual allure.” The tobacco companies were all to happy to reinforce those associations, and the “Torches Of Freedom” campaign in the late 1920s attempted to make smoking an equality issue on par with equal pay or the only-recently-won right to vote.

Further down the wormhole: The European Union banned tobacco advertising on TV in 1991; many of its member nations already had such a ban in place. But a few countries, including Germany and Greece, still allow ads on billboards. Having a slightly softer stance toward tobacco ads doesn’t stop the Greek people from having one of the highest life expectancies in the world, with 33 percent of the island of Icaria’s population living past age 90. Wikipedia also covers the unlikely longevity of some of the last survivors of historic events, who we’ll visit next week.