Today health campaigns warn of the harmful effects of smoking. Yet in the mid-20th century American tobacco companies ran advertising campaigns that did the opposite.
During the 1940s and 1950s most Americans (including doctors) smoked but there were rising public concerns about the possible health risks of tobacco. In response, cigarette manufacturers heavily marketed their products stating otherwise. Tobacco companies concerned about falling sales released newspaper editorials, magazine spreads and even television adverts featuring images of medical professionals to imply that doctors endorsed smoking and thus reassure consumers that their products were safe.
In 1946 the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company – producer of Camel cigarettes – began an advertising campaign that became instantly recognisable through the tagline, “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.” The not-so-subtle message was that if a doctor chose to smoke that particular brand of cigarettes then they must be safe.
Adverts involved representations of middle aged male doctors who were dedicated to their patients to emphasise the respectability of the profession. You’ll see that in the picture above the initials M and D are highlighted in red to accentuate the qualifications and expertise of physicians. R. J. Reynolds also managed to avoid facing possible litigation through the clever word choice of the slogan. By stating that doctors simply preferred Camels over other brands, the company was able to address the public’s health concerns without directly making false claims that that they were healthier than other cigarettes.
Unlike celebrity endorsements, cigarette promotions with medical imagery never showed real doctors. As they were prohibited from appearing in advertisements in order to retain their licences tobacco companies were forced to use actors instead. However, physicians and their professional organisations were complicit in the tobacco industry’s attempts to downplay the harmful effects of smoking.
Prominent medical journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association derived a large proportion of their income from tobacco advertorials in the pages of their publications and had been doing so for decades. Physicians also claimed in surveys to prefer the brand over others after being bribed with complimentary Camel cigarettes at medical conferences and conventions.
This aggressive promotional strategy saw Camels become a leading brand of cigarettes in the United States. Tobacco consumption in America was shaped by powerful corporations who dedicated huge budgets to advertising in order to manipulate consumer tastes.
However, by the early 1950s suggestions that smoking cigarettes was safe or healthy were no longer credible. Compelling evidence showed that tobacco was responsible for a raft of health complaints and in 1953 the link between lung cancer and smoking was made clear. Medical associations quickly severed ties with tobacco companies and fictitious physicians singing the praises of Camel cigarettes disappeared from the pages of journals and tobacco companies were forced to shift to subtle product placement to keep sales high. After running for 8 years, the R. J. Reynolds “more doctors” campaign finally ended in 1954.
The Stanford School of Medicine has a great online collection of vintage smoking advertisements if you’d like to see more examples. Also take a look at the fantastic book by medical historian Allan M. Brandt called The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall and Deadly Persistence of the Product that Defined America.
R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. (1946). Camel cigarettes: the smoking choice of doctors [Image]. Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/29069717@N02/11984742233
Gardner, M. N, & Brandt, A. M. (2006). “The doctors’ choice is America’s choice”: the physician in US cigarette advertisements 1930-1953. American Journal of Public Health, 96(2), 222-232. Retrieved from JSTOR.
Samji, H. A., & Jackler, R. J. (2008). “Not one single case of throat irritation”: misuse of the image of the otolarygnologist in cigarette advertising. The Larygnoscope, 118(3), 415-427. Retrieved from Wiley Online Library.
White, C., Oliffe, J. L., & Bottorff, J. L. (2012). From the physician to the Marlboro man: masculinity, health, and cigarette advertising in America 1946-1964. Men and Masculinities, 15(5), 526-547. Retrieved from JSTOR.