There are a ton of good stories about the advertising industry and their never-ending quest to sell things to consumers. Here’s one of my favorites.
When George Washington Hill became the president of the American Tobacco Company in 1927, the company was floundering a little bit. Long past its glory days in the 1900’s when it had a monopoly in the American cigarette trade, the company was losing sales to rivals like the R.J. Reynolds Company (makers of Camels) and Liggett & Meyers (Chesterfields). American Tobacco had its own brand too, Lucky Strike cigarettes, which it had been selling since 1917. But when Hill became president, he wasn’t satisfied with their sales numbers. Lucky Strike would be number one or bust!
Hill personally oversaw a lot of the advertising that was created for Lucky Strike (even though he had top advertising men like Albert Lasker in his employ). One of their early and more successful advertising strategies was to target women. Hill first tried hiring famous opera singers and actresses to endorse Lucky Strike saying that the cigarette was “light on their throat” or didn’t cause any coughing to try to make the brand seem more mild/enjoyable than others. That worked pretty well, but Hill still wasn’t satisfied. Women were a “gold mine” and he knew that more ads could convince more of them to start smoking Luckies.
In 1929, American Tobacco started running ads that got even bolder, claiming that Lucky Strikes were not only better tasting than the other brands, they were actually healthy too! Using endorsements from young and healthy people like Fannie Ward, ads claimed “the modern common sense way- reach for a Lucky instead of a fattening sweet. Everyone is doing it- men keep healthy and fit, women retain a trim figure.” Eating less candy is healthy yes, but yellow teeth? That gross smokers’ hack? Perhaps even cancer? Obviously these ads were leaving some things out…
But guess who got the maddest at the “Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet” ads? Not doctors, American Tobacco actually paid many doctors for their positive testimonials of Lucky Strike cigarettes. No, it wasn’t the public either. Hopefully people weren’t totally bamboozled by the new ads, but Lucky Strike sales increased significantly after the “Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet” series ran. The answer is… the candy industry! Yes, candy manufacturers and distributors quickly realized that Lucky Strike ads were encouraging people to buy less candy and smoke cigarettes instead. On top of that, the ads were linking candy to health problems. And they didn’t appreciate the suggestion that candy makes you ugly.
Candy producers began by asking George Hill to stop running these attack ads. But that didn’t seem to work. Hill would politely say no and send them a medical book on the dangers of candy. Here’s a copy of one of the more intense letters that Hill received, its one of my favorites: the Shellenberger Letter (the original letter is in the Edward Bernays Papers at the Library of Congress). I don’t know what my favorite part of J. Frank Shellenberger’s letter, but I think this captures the essence of what he wanted to say: “your publicity scheme is positively venomous. You are trying to break down and disrupt other lines of business for your personal gain.” Sounds like he’s talking about the Grinch!
Eventually the candy people threatened American Tobacco with legal action and they stopped running the ads that mentioned candy. But here’s what came next in 1930:
Very clever. George Hill knew that people remembered the old slogan so he just dropped the “instead of a sweet” part and was good to go! And on top of that the new ads added the gross looking shadow of an overweight person just to make sure that people knew exactly what they were talking about, but they didn’t technically mention anything about candy. “When tempted to over-indulge reach for a Lucky instead.” And Lucky Strike sales continued to soar!
Well, that’s the end of this particular Lucky Strike story. The New Republic wrote a really good article on the whole Cigarettes vs. Candy thing that gives a good contemporary take on the whole thing. And if you’d like to see more cigarette ads from the time, Stanford has a really good database of tobacco advertising that I recommend. If you’re so inclined, the original ads on the website are actually held at the Smithsonian’s Archives Center!