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" Torches of Freedom": Themes of Women's Liberation in American Cigarette Advertising



Women began smoking in the United States during the 1920's, when the cigarette was adopted by factory workers and college women as a symbol of rebellion, independence, and equality. Tobacco companies exploited this new market by directing advertising at women. One brand in particular -- Lucky Strike -- had remarkable success by promoting cigarettes as women's "torches of freedom" -- symbols of feminist defiance. In the late 1960's, a similar strategy emerged when tobacco companies created new "women's brands" designed to exploit the excitement caused by the resurgence of the women's movement. The most economically successful of these was Virginia Slims, which used an advertising campaign that explicitly tied smoking to women's liberation. But the promotion of women's brands has also been credited by medical researchers with playing a major role in the subsequent fourfold increase in lung cancer rates in women. This paper presents a brief history of the Luck Strike and Virginia Slims advertising campaigns and examines how these advertisers perversely used the rhetoric and imagery of liberation to lure women into destructive addiction.
"Torches of Freedom":
Themes of Women's Liberation in American Cigarette Advertising
[Revised and expanded edition]
Steve Craig
Dept. of Radio, Television and Film
University of North Texas
Denton, Texas 76203
(940) 565-2537
Author note: The author wishes to thank Terry Moellinger for his research assistance.
Women began smoking in the U.S. in large numbers during the 1920's, when
cigarettes became a fad among college girls as a symbol of rebellion, independence,
and equality. Brands such as Lucky Strike quickly exploited the new market by directing
advertising at women that promoted cigarettes as slimming, fashionable and glamorous.
With the coming of the second wave of the women's movement in the mid-1960's,
tobacco companies created new "women's brands" designed and marketed specifically
for young women. The most successful of these by far was Virginia Slims, which used
an advertising campaign that explicitly tied smoking to women's liberation.
Yet despite the fact that lung cancer rates in women have quadrupled since the
introduction of women's brands, feminist groups and women's magazines have been
strangely silent on the dangers of smoking and on tobacco's continued targeting of
women as a prime market.
This paper traces the history of women's smoking in the U.S. and focuses on the
special strategies devised by tobacco advertisers to lure women to smoking. It also
documents the criticisms that the tobacco industry has bought women's silence through
sponsorship of women's athletics, heavy advertising in women's magazines, and direct
contributions to women's causes.
Few Americans today doubt the health hazards associated with smoking. In
recent years, state and Federal governments have begun to hold the tobacco industry
financially accountable for the steep economic costs of treating smoking-related
illnesses, and if currently proposed legislation is passed, tobacco companies may be
penalized if teenage smoking levels do not decline.
But for many, such regulation comes too late. According to the Centers for
Disease Control, lung cancer deaths among women have increased by more than 400
percent over the past three decades. An estimated 62,000 women now die each year
from lung cancer, a disease that has surpassed breast cancer as the leading cause of
cancer deaths among women. The CDC also points out that smoking increases
women's risk of heart disease and stroke, reproductive disorders, emphysema,
bronchitis, and pneumonia, and smoking by pregnant women and mothers has been
closely linked to prenatal and postnatal health problems for babies (Centers for Disease
Control, 1996).1
Why the tremendous increase in women's cases of lung cancer? Virtually all
smokers begin when they are teenagers or young adults, but most of the serious effects
of smoking take years to develop. Women who are now suffering adverse health
effects began smoking in the 1960's and 1970's. A recent study by Pierce, Lee, and
Gilpin (1994) examined age and sex data for new smokers from 1940 to the middle
1980's. Their findings indicate that although the proportion of Americans taking up
smoking declined steadily beginning about 1962, an alarming increase in new smokers
among 14 to 17 year old girls coincided with the introduction of women's cigarette
brands in the late 1960's. Their study concludes that "the tobacco advertising
campaigns targeting women, which were launched in 1967, were associated with a
major increase in smoking uptake that was specific to females younger than the legal
age for purchasing cigarettes" (p. 608).
Is cigarette advertising responsible for the untimely deaths of thousands of
women? This paper examines the history of women's smoking in the United States, and
focuses on the introduction of women's brands beginning in the late 1960's. Advertising
for these women's brands promoted cigarettes as fashionable, glamorous symbols of
independence. The Pierce, Lee, and Gilpin study provides evidence that these
campaigns made smoking so attractive to young women that many of them responded
by taking up the habit for the first time. One brand in particular, Virginia Slims, became a
huge sales success for its producer, the Philip Morris Company. Using slick, stylish
advertising, Slims went from an unknown to a top brand in only a few months. As John
Simley comments, "millions of women were compelled to try this new brand, even
women who did not smoke" (1994, p. 623).
Yet few feminists have ever spoken out against the tobacco industry and the
dangers associated with smoking have been seldom discussed in women's magazines.
This paper will also examine the charge by some critics that over the years, the tobacco
industry has bought the silence of women's groups through sponsorship of women's
sports, advertising in women's magazines, and financial contributions to women's
Smoking, Liberation, and Tobacco Advertising: The Beginnings
In 1854, an observer in New York reported that
some of the ladies of this refined and fashion-forming metropolis are aping the
silly ways of some pseudo-accomplished foreigners in smoking Tobacco [sic]
through a weaker and more feminine article which has been most delicately
denominated cigarette (emphasis in the original).(quoted in Tennant, 1950, p.
Although, as this evidence suggests, women in the U.S. were using cigarettes as
early as the mid-19th Century, strong social pressures against women smoking would
keep the practice severely restricted for many more decades. Even at the turn of the
century, cigarette smoking by women was very rare and restricted mainly to "prostitutes
and women in liberated bohemian and intellectual sets" (Fass, 1977, p. 293). Nor were
cigarettes popular among American men, who considered them effeminate and instead
favored cigars, pipes, snuff, or chewing tobacco.
World War I, however, brought major changes, both in the design of the cigarette
and in its use. For one thing, the war forced American manufacturers to switch from
strong Turkish tobaccos to much milder domestic blends, greatly reducing the
harshness found in earlier cigarettes. At the same time, American servicemen began
smoking cigarettes in great numbers. Soldiers found that the ready-made smokes were
much more convenient than pipes or cigars, and since the government provided each
man with a daily ration, cost was not an object. The earlier characterization of cigarettes
as effeminate rapidly disappeared during the war (Schudson, 1984, pp. 186-187).
With the advent of milder tobaccos, cigarettes also began to find favor with small,
but steadily growing numbers of young women who saw smoking as "a glamorous
affectation and somewhat naughty" (Fass, 1977, p. 300). Cigarette smoking fit the new
and rebellious social attitudes of the Roaring Twenties and was one way women could
express their growing expectations of independence and gender equality. By the middle
of the decade, smoking had become a stylish fad among college women and so
prevalent that a contemporary survey at Ohio State University reported that one-third of
the women students smoked (Fass, 1977, p. 296). That is not to say that these young
women saw smoking as a conscious political act -- rather, it was a seen as a relatively
harmless way of thumbing one's nose at convention. They "welcomed the sexual
connotation that lingered around smoking and incorporated sexual suggestiveness as
part of their right" (Fass, 1977, p. 300).
But the issue of women's smoking soon became a site of struggle between
conservative and progressive forces. As Fass points out, "the objection to women's
smoking was based on traditional criteria of proper conduct for women; once one of
these was questioned, all of them would be questioned" (1977, p, 293). Even so, by the
end of the decade, "smoking for women had become legitimate" (Fass, 1977, p. 296),
and one source estimated that women were consuming about 12 percent of all
cigarettes sold (Women and cigarettes, 1932, p. 25).
Unfortunately, once these young women began smoking, they found it very
difficult to stop. Cigarettes, unlike cigars or pipes, must be inhaled into the lungs for the
smoker to receive a full dosage of nicotine. This makes cigarettes not only more likely to
cause health problems, but also far more addictive than other forms of tobacco
(Schudson, 1984, p. 185). In addition, research suggests that for reasons not fully
understood, women find it much more difficult than men to stop smoking (Women find
halt, 1971, p. 84).
At first, tobacco companies were wary of a backlash to ads directly appealing to
women and so approached the subject indirectly. Beginning about 1919, Lorrillard
began to run ads showing exotically dressed upscale women. None held cigarettes, but
an open pack was seen nearby. In 1926, Liggett & Meyers became somewhat more
direct with a magazine ad for Chesterfield showing a romantic couple. He is smoking
while she looks on wistfully. The caption reads: "Blow some my way" (Sobel, 1978, p.
The first major advertising effort aimed directly at women was devised in 1928
when George Washington Hill, president of the American Tobacco Company, decided
to launch an all-out campaign to get women to smoke Lucky Strike cigarettes.2 Hill,
along with advertising executive Albert D. Lasker, decided to approach women through
the claim that since smoking dulled appetites, it enhanced health by helping with weight
control. They theorized that the idea of smoking for weight control would capitalize on
women's fashions of the twenties that emphasized youth and slimness. To this end, Hill
and Lasker devised what would prove to be a highly effective campaign slogan, "Reach
for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet" (Sivulka, 1998, pp. 166-169).
Hill hired public relations pioneer Edward Bernays to help with the necessary
social engineering. They first set out to increase the acceptability of women smoking in
public. To this end, Bernays convinced a group of ten debutantes to smoke cigarettes
while strolling with their escorts in Fifth Avenue's Easter parade. The stunt was billed by
Bernays as women lighting a "torch of freedom" . . . "to combat the silly prejudice that
the cigarette . . . is never seen on the sidewalk." (Bernays, 1965, p. 387).
Another problem Lucky Strike faced was its packaging. Hill believed that Lucky's
then dark green pack with a bright red bulls-eye was perceived by many women to be
unfashionable. Since Hill did not want to change the highly recognizable Lucky's color
scheme, he ordered Bernays to make green fashionable. Bernays concocted a series of
stunts including an all-green charity ball and an all-green luncheon for New York fashion
editors, complete with lectures from an art professor on the use of green in art and from
a psychologist on the subconscious implications of green (Bernays, 1965, pp. 389-391).
Lucky Strike's late 1920's advertising was tremendously successful for the
company and is largely credited with boosting the cigarette's sales from 13.7 billion
cigarettes in 1925 to 43.2 billion just five years later (Tennant, 1950, pp. 139, 88).
Although there is no way of knowing how much of that increase was attributable to
women, it must have been significant.
In the woman-oriented "instead of a sweet" campaign, Hill and Bernays struck
upon three major themes that would be revived by Philip Morris in the 1960's for its new
women's brand, Virginia Slims. First was the notion that cigarettes helped in weight
control and so promoted slimness, exemplified by the slogan and made explicit in the
advertising copy. Second, smoking Lucky Strikes was made to seem fashionable. Not
only did the ads show glamorous and fashionable women smoking the cigarette, but,
thanks to Bernays, they came in a now-fashionable green pack. Finally, the campaign
exploited the notion that cigarettes were explicit symbols of a woman's defiance of
traditional social norms. When Virginia Slims arrived on the scene forty years later,
these same themes would prove just as successful in attracting a new generation of
Through the 1930's and 1940's, the number of both men and women who
smoked grew steadily. The quantity of cigarette advertising continued to be substantial
through these years, with magazine and newspaper ads supplemented by heavy use of
the newly developed medium of radio. By 1935, it was estimated that over half of adult
men and 18 percent of adult women smoked. But most of the women smokers were
young; the same survey found that 26.2 percent of the women under 40 smoked
(Tennant, 1950, p. 136).3
The decade of the 1940's saw even greater increases in smoking. The war years
saw a revival of the free distribution of cigarettes to soldiers and many young men
adopted the habit while in the service. Women also began smoking more, especially in
urban areas where new generations were entering the labor force. In 1944, the Gallup
Poll reported that 36 percent of women smoked (U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services, 1980, p. 20).
But with the postwar years came increasing concerns about the health risks
associated with smoking. Medical researchers began to focus on connections between
smoking and lung cancer and other diseases, and disturbing early findings were
beginning to receive coverage in the popular press. The industry responded by
stepping up advertising containing claims that particular brands were less harsh or
irritating, and in the early 1950's, the filter tipped cigarette was introduced in an attempt
to assuage smokers' growing health fears.
But by the mid-1960's, the tobacco industry found itself facing a rapidly changing
market. Medical research on the health hazards of smoking had continued, culminating
in the 1964 Surgeon General's Report, which unequivocally linked cigarettes and lung
cancer. The alarming news greatly raised the level of public awareness and cigarette
smoking began a general, if somewhat uneven, decline. As the health evidence
mounted, so did the pressure on government to act. The FTC cracked down on tobacco
ad health claims and Congress required cigarette packs to carry health warning labels.
By the end of the 1960's, Congress acted again to ban cigarette advertising on
television (Whelan, 1984).
The industry realized that although many smokers could not (or would not) stop
smoking, older brands had attained a somewhat tarnished health image. The response
was to introduce and promote a large number of new brands, especially those with filter
tips. Despite these efforts, the industry realized it was facing a serious threat as
smoking continued its steady decline.
"You've Come a Long Way, Baby": The Introduction of Women's Brands
The 1960's also saw the arrival of the "second wave"4 of the women's movement.
In 1963, Betty Friedan published her runaway international best-seller, The Feminine
Mystique, which helped popularize women's issues, and in 1966, the National
Organization for Women (NOW) was formed. Other women's groups were also
established and by the end of the decade, marches, sit-ins, and other political actions
for women's equality had begun receiving extensive press coverage.
But, by 1968, women were already approaching equality with men in terms of the
number who smoked ("Women's cigaret" [sic], 1968). For many in the tobacco industry,
the time seemed right to market a cigarette especially for women. One company that
liked the idea of a woman's brand was Philip Morris, which had already been successful
in attracting women smokers to its Benson & Hedges brand. Benson & Hedges had a
longer 100 millimeter length, a filter tip, and a mild tobacco blend, all characteristics that
consumer testing told them women preferred.
The strategy in creating Virginia Slims was to produce a brand that not just
appealed to women, but that had a distinct identity as a woman's cigarette. Although the
basic tobacco blend was to be very similar to that used in the regular Benson & Hedges,
the shape and packaging of Virginia Slims were to be unique. First, the new cigarette
was to be 100 millimeters long, but only 23 millimeters in circumference. This made it
slightly thinner than the standard 25 millimeter cigarette. It would be filter-tipped, but the
filter would be white, making the cigarette appear even longer. Simley reports that "the
slimmer design was generally found to appeal to women, who associated the tall, slim
cigarette with a tall, slim figure" (1994, 622).
The Virginia Slims package continued the themes of cleanness and slenderness
in its design. It was, of course, taller than ordinary packs to accommodate the longer
cigarette length, but it was also white with a series of vertical lines, helping give the
visual impression that the pack was slimmer than it really was. Tall, thin letters spelled
out the product name (Simley, 1994, 622). The name "Virginia Slims" conveyed two
major product features, the use of mild Virginia tobaccos and the slim shape.5
Benson & Hedges' advertising agency , the Leo Burnett Company of Chicago
(the same agency that had successfully introduced the Marlboro man), was selected to
design the introductory Virginia Slims advertising campaign. How much the agency
studied the successful 1920's Luckies campaign devised by Hill, Lasker, and Bernays is
not known. However, the Virginia Slims campaign was designed around the same three
general themes: (1) smoking helps with weight control, (2) smoking is fashionable, and
(3) smoking is a symbol of liberation and gender equality.
The first theme was introduced with the cigarette's name, dimensions and
packaging. Although Virginia Slims did not make overt claims concerning weight
control, the idea clearly came through.6 The models in all Slims ads were tall, thin and
costumed in outfits that accentuated their thinness. The idea of fashionableness was
likewise conveyed through the use of sophisticated models who were almost always
dressed in the latest fashions.7 But it was probably in the association with women's
liberation that the brand found its greatest initial success. The original campaign
featured ads that used a satirical approach to male chauvinism that explicitly connected
smoking to the rejection of male dominance. The first television ad exemplifies the
campaign (see Figure 1).
Figure 1
Virginia Slims TV Commercial, 1968
(original in sepia & color)
MUSIC: Tinny piano riffs
punctuate throughout first
ANNCR: (male) In 1910,
Mrs. Pamela Benjamin
was caught smoking
in the gazebo.
She got a severe scolding
and no supper that night.
In 1915, Mrs. Cynthia Robinson
Was caught smoking
in the cellar behind the
Although she was 34,
her husband sent her straight to
her room.
Then -- in 1920, women won
their rights!
MUSIC: (Chorus) You've come
a long way
bay-bee . . .
ANNCR: (woman) Introducing
new Virginia Slims.
The slim cigarette for women
Tailored for the feminine hand.
Slimmer than the fat cigarettes
that men smoke,
it's flavor women like. Rich mild
Virginia flavor.
New Virginia Slims in the slim
purse pack.
MUSIC: (Chorus) You've come
a long way
bay bee,
to get where you got to to
You've got your own cigarette
now, bay bee,
You've come a
Long, long
The commercial portrays a series of quick fictional historical vignettes involving
women caught smoking by men in the early part of the century. In the first, a woman in
1910 named Pamela Benjamin is caught by her husband "smoking in the gazebo." “She
got a severe scolding and no supper that night. In 1915, Mrs. Cynthia Robinson was
caught smoking in the cellar behind the preserves. Although she was 34, her husband
sent her straight to her room. Then, in 1920, women won their rights.” The ad ends with
a fashion model with a Virginia Slims cigarette walking toward the camera accompanied
by the distinctive jingle “You’ve come a long way, baby.” Other television ads and print
advertising followed this same basic format.
Virginia Slims was first test-marketed in the San Francisco area, using this
television commercial and similarly-themed print and radio ads. The introduction was
"wildly successful" (Simley, 1994, p. 622), with Philip Morris reporting the biggest new-
brand sales since the re-introduction of the masculinized Marlboro with its cowboy.
Virginia Slims quickly captured three to four percent of carton sales in an industry with
hundreds of brands. The test was so successful that Philip Morris went national two
months earlier than planned, launching in September, 1968 ("Women's cigaret" [sic],
The national launch featured a heavy advertising campaign using magazines,
newspapers, radio and television, all using the same women's rights nostalgia theme
and featuring the "You've come a long way, baby" slogan. Network TV included
commercials on the most popular network shows, such as Family Affair, Mayberry RFD,
and Green Acres, and magazine buys included Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Ladies' Home
Journal, Vogue, and Women's Wear Daily ("Virginia Slims goes national," 1968) (see
Figure 2).8
Figure 2
Virginia Slims Magazine Ads, McCall's, 1968
The ads evidently struck a chord with many women who were just becoming
aware of the implications of the evolving women’s movement. The humorous satirizing
of male chauvinism was extremely popular and the Slims slogan quickly became a
national catch phrase. Ellen Merlo, an early brand manager for Slims, explained the
campaign's success with women this way: "it was never strident, almost always tongue-
in-cheek, and not feminist so much as liberationist, in the sense that the slogan really
meant, 'You've got a lot of options now'" (quoted in Kluger,1996, 316).
Not only was the new brand an instant commercial success, but the advertising
campaign itself was seen in the industry as a breakthrough model for marketing to the
"new woman." One ad industry observer put it this way,
When Virginia Slims' "You've come a long way, baby" bounced into the
world of advertising in 1968, it bounced most of us on our ears. The saucy,
stylish, humorous ads and commercials set a new tone in women's product
advertising. The campaign created a daring-to-be-different, daring-to-be-free
image that made the brand stand out like Gloria Steinem in the Chicago Bears
locker room. (Robinson, 1985)
But despite the campaign’s overwhelming success with advertisers and women
consumers, a few critical voices were heard. Some feminists resented both the
commercialization of feminism and the fact that the ads trivialized the movement’s
message. They pointed out that despite what the ads claimed, women had not really
come very far at all, and they even added their own new catch phrase, “and don’t call
me ‘baby’!”.9 NOW even awarded Slims one of its “Old Hat” awards, reserved for
advertising the group felt was especially demeaning to women (Sloane, 1971).
However, there was virtually no criticism from feminists about the fact that these new
women's cigarettes posed serious health risks.
"A Form of Prostitution": Women's Groups and Big Tobacco
Despite the Surgeon General's Report and other clear evidence that cigarette
smoking caused serious health problems, second wave women's groups largely ignored
the issue.10 This may partly have been because they chose to concentrate on other,
more woman-specific health issues such as breast and ovarian cancer. But an
increasing number of critics charge that over the years, the tobacco industry has bought
the silence of women's groups through its sponsorship of women's sports, advertising in
women's magazines, and financial contributions to women's causes, (Williams, 1991a,
1991b, 1991c)
One example has been Virginia Slims sponsorship of professional women's
tennis. Until Virginia Slims began sponsoring big-prize tournaments in 1970, women's
professional tennis was virtually non-existent. Within five years, what became the
Virginia Slims Circuit was providing stars such as Chris Evert not only with the
opportunity to win $300,000 in a single season, but also with television and press
coverage that few women athletes had experienced before. For Virginia Slims, the
opportunity to associate a cigarette with a woman's athletic event was compelling. The
brand's name appeared in the title of the Circuit and, of course, in all sports stories
coming from the matches. Sample packs of Virginia Slims and other promotions were
given away at the tournaments (From lawns, 1984). It was only after anti-smoking
groups began pressuring players and officials in the mid-1980's that women's tennis
began to question the propriety of the sponsorship.11
Another example of the conspiracy of silence is the way in which most women's
magazines have systematically under-reported the risks of smoking while at the same
time running large numbers of tobacco ads. With the 1970 ban on cigarette advertising
on television, magazines experienced a huge increase in the number of tobacco ads --
in many cases doubling their pre-1970 lineage. Women's magazines saw even larger
increases, with McCall's and Redbook increasing by 186 per cent and Woman's Day by
533 per cent (Feinberg, 1971). A number of studies since then have examined the
impact of tobacco ads on health coverage in women's magazines with virtually all
supporting the conclusion of Hesterman that "editorial autonomy for women's
magazines disappears when tobacco advertisements enter the picture" (1987, p.
21(23)). 12
For example, Kessler (1989) conducted a content analysis of issues of six
women's magazines that accepted tobacco ads, published in 1983-1989. She found that
although a total of 694 health stories had been printed by the six magazines during this
period, not one of the stories concerned the dangers of smoking. But when Hesterman
(1987) examined Good Housekeeping and Seventeen, two women's magazines with
long-standing policies against accepting tobacco ads, she found that during 1972-1979,
Good Housekeeping ran 17 articles on the dangers of smoking while Seventeen ran
four. Furthermore, Whelan (1996) conducted an analysis of issues of 13 women's
magazines from the year 1996. While she found that "a substantial portion of editorial
content was devoted to disease-prevention advice . . . not one magazine carried a
feature story on preventing lung cancer" nor on several other categories of women-
related health problems connected to smoking.
In fairness, it should be pointed out that the avoidance of anti-smoking stories is
common in all magazines that accept tobacco ads, not just those aimed at women
(Smith, 1978). Yet it is an especially troubling finding in women's magazines for two
reasons. First, health issues (except for those related to smoking), are an area of major
emphasis in women's magazines (Kessler, 1989), and many women rely on them for
information about health issues. The absence of tobacco-related health stories from
sources on which women place such reliance downplays the seriousness of the threat.
Second, the number of young women taking up smoking increased greatly during the
late 1960's and early 1970's. The need for accurate information on the risks of smoking
in women's magazines at this time was especially critical.
Even Ms., founded and edited by such staunch feminists as Betty Friedan and
Gloria Steinem, ran cigarette ads although it refused ads for other products, such as
feminine hygiene deodorants. Notwithstanding the magazine's otherwise progressive
policy on advertising, Ms. carried tobacco ads for years, despite the fact that the
practice generated from readers their "most serious and sustained criticism" (Thom,
1997, p. 135).13 Ms. insider Mary Thom has written that the staff (mostly smokers
themselves) was well aware of the health risks to women,
But tobacco advertising was such a large category for Ms. and for
magazines in general once television banned them, no one on the staff thought
the magazine could survive without the income from cigarette ads. As Gloria
Steinem (Ms. co-editor) wrote, the necessity of taking tobacco ads had "become
a kind of prison."
Ms. did report the bad news about smoking in its health coverage over
the years, but those articles tended to be short items rather than featured
stories. (p. 136)14
But probably the most troubling aspect of the buyout of the women's movement
by big tobacco has been through donations to women's social and political causes. In
1991, The Washington Post reported just how extensive this involvement is. Claiming
that the women's movement has a "deep-rooted addiction to tobacco," Post reporter
Marjorie Williams wrote,
While appropriating the imagery of feminism, the tobacco industry has
rewarded the women's movement with hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Among the most prominent groups receiving tobacco contributions in the past
few years are the National Women's Political Caucus, the Women's Campaign
Fund, the Women's Research and Education Institute, the American
Association of University Women, the American Federation of Business and
Professional Women's Clubs, Wider Opportunities for Women, the League of
Women Voters Education Fund, the Center for Women Policy Studies and
Women Executives in State Government.
And this is only a partial list. (Williams, 1991c, p. A16).
There are a few women's groups who refuse tobacco money or, like the National
Organization for Women (NOW), have given it up. (NOW began turning down tobacco
donations in the late 1980's.) The Post quotes NOW president Molly Yard as saying "I
understand why they take it, but I think it's contemptible. It is, after all, a form of
prostitution to take money for something that is going to kill women" (Williams, 1991c, p.
More recently, The CBS Evening News with Dan Rather ran a story on tobacco's
funding of women's social services. At a battered women's hotline in New York called
Victims' Services, reporter Paula Zahn interviewed organization director Lucy Friedman:
Zahn: Are you worried about jeopardizing your funding if you talk to us about
tobacco being a bad thing?
Friedman (nervously): Uh . . . I mean, I wouldn't . . . It's not my issue, right? I
mean it's not my public issue. . .
Zahn (voice over): Her reluctance to criticize smoking is understandable. . .
Victim's Services gets $200,000 a year in tobacco money.
(Mapes, 1998).
The story of tobacco advertising in the United States is a sordid enough tale, but
the chapters on women and cigarettes are a national disgrace. Tobacco advertising to
women has been focused on convincing them that using a product deadly to
themselves and harmful to their children is the height of fashion and glamour. But even
more deplorable has been the co-optation of women's struggle for liberation and
independence in order to sell what is ultimately debilitating.
But just as women have been lured to their own demise by tobacco advertising,
the women's movement itself has become addicted to tobacco's money. Feminists who
should be outraged by the indecency of ads luring teenage girls to smoke have taken up
their own tobacco habit. The question now is, which habit is harder to break?
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1 All statistics and claims in this paper refer to the United States only.
2 As Schudson (1984, pp. 183-191) and Tennant (1950, pp. 139-140) argue,
women were already smoking in significant numbers before cautious advertisers began
targeting them. For example, Luckies was already a favorite brand among college
women before the American Tobacco Company campaign began. (A 1927 college
newspaper story reported that an informal survey of women weekending at Bowdoin
College indicated that there were more of them who smoked Luckies than who did not
smoke (Fass, 1977, p. 297)). Certainly, cigarette advertisers recognized and exploited
women's smoking and perhaps even made it more socially acceptable, but they were
not the cause of its beginning.
3 Statistics on smoking trends are often confusing (and are sometimes
intentionally made so). For example, the per capita number of cigarettes consumed can
decline while the actual number of smokers can increase -- due to the overall population
increase. Another confusing factor is that when smokers switched to filter cigarettes
(and later, low tar and slim brands), they often smoked more in order to obtain the same
nicotine dosage. Also, the decline in smoking was not even among all groups, so while
by the end of the 1960's older adults were quitting smoking in significant numbers,
smoking among teenage girls was rising dramatically.
4 As Davis (1991, pp. 27-29) points out, historians often use the terms "first
wave" and "second wave" of the women's movement to convey the idea that while these
were peak periods in the women's rights movement, activism did not cease in between.
The end of the first wave is generally dated at the adoption of universal suffrage in
1920, but many women's groups were active between the two waves. The second wave
is usually considered to have begun in the early 1960's.
5 The name "Virginia Slims" may also have sexual connotations for some, as the
name "Virginia" contains the term "virgin" and is similar to the word "vagina." Freudians
may also find phallic significance in the longer cigarette and the way it is frequently held
by advertising models. I have found no evidence that any of this was consciously
considered by the company or its ad agency.
6 The subtlety may have been due the result of increased federal prohibitions
against health claims in tobacco ads.
7 It wasn't until somewhat after the cigarette's introduction that Philip Morris
began to emphasize the fashion angle with a Virginia Slims calendar featuring fashion
layouts and a clothing catalog by which smokers could purchase fashions with package
coupons. Both strategies are still being used. Slims' latest strategy aimed at the youth
market is the production of a music CD featuring a woman vocalist. Kids get it free with
two packs of cigarettes.
8 Other tobacco companies also introduced brands aimed at women, but none
were to attain the success of Virginia Slims. American Tobacco's Silva Thins was
actually introduced a year before Virginia Slims, but initially misfired on its advertising
approach. Ad copy proclaimed "Cigarettes are like girls, the best ones are thin and
rich." Predictably, women's groups protested the campaign and called for a product
boycott (Kluger, 1996, p. 315; American Brands, 1970, p. 12). Even Philip Morris itself
failed with a women's brand called Embra, introduced about the same time as Virginia
Slims. Liggett & Myers fared somewhat better with Eve, introduced in 1970, and other
brands redesigned their packages in ways they thought would appeal to women
(Dougherty, 1970).
9 The addition of the term "baby" at the end of the slogan was a subject of hot
debate among agency staff during the creation of the campaign. The agency was well
aware that some would find the term offensive, but when testing of the tagline without
the word showed that it fell flat, they decided to retain it (Kluger, 1996, 316).
10 There were a few exceptions. For example, see Jacobson, 1982.
11 By the mid-1980's, the company was sponsoring the $500,000 Virginia Slims
Championships, bringing together the world's top 16 women players, and providing $16
million a year to support women's tennis. But anti-smoking groups such as New York's
SmokeFree Educational Services began staging protests at some tournaments carrying
dollar-sign covered placards reading "Why are these women pushing cigarettes" and
"Yes, Virginia, there is lung cancer." Amidst charges that women athletes had sold out
to big tobacco, Philip Morris began to withdraw the Virginia Slims name from some
tournaments, substituting instead its non-tobacco brand name "Kraft" (Fiske, 1992;
Women tennis pros, 1988).
12 On tobacco advertising and women's magazines, see Altman, Slater, Albright,
& Maccoby, 1987; Basil & Schooler, 1990; Feinberg, 1971; Hesterman, 1987; Kessler,
1989; Smith, 1978; and Whelan, 1996.
13 Ms. ran one ad for Virginia Slims, then refused to carry any more. However,
the reason was that the editors found the slogan demeaning to women, not because
smoking was a threat to health. See, Everything you ever wanted to know, 1974, p. 58;
Hesterman, 1987, p. 13 (15).
14 Thom goes on to explain that in the February, 1987, issue, Ms. finally
published a major story on the hazards of smoking.
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