50 Years Ago: The Last Cigarette Ad Appears on Television
At 11:50 PM on Jan. 1, 1971, the last television ad for cigarettes ran on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, signaling the end of an era and shifting the media world in ways that are still being felt today.
You can see the minute-long spot below. It features Virginia Slims' controversial attempt to cash in on the women's liberation movement with the tag line "You've come a long way, baby."
Tobacco has played a role in American life for almost as long as humans had lived here. First cultivated by people in Central America an estimated 7,000 years ago, the plant spread to Europe when colonial trade was established across the Atlantic, making it an economic fixture of the American colonies and, eventually, the United States. By 1864, cigarettes were popular enough domestically that the U.S. government levied the first national tax on them; a century later, by some estimates, around 50 percent of American adults smoked.
This rapidly became a major public health issue, and from the 1940s on there was a great deal of documented research — by both the government and private groups — linking smoking to cancer. This information did little to dissuade the public: Though they had the evidence available to them about smoking's health risks, they were faced by an advertising blitz from cigarette companies, convincing them that smoking was fashionable, cool, manly, sexy and, yes, really good for you.
"You Can't Take The Country Out of Salem" Commercial
This blitz had a particular hold on the entertainment industry. Tobacco companies sponsored TV shows and filled movies with product placement ads, aided by the fact that, on black and white film stock, the smoke trailing up from a cigarette had a undeniable beauty. The companies also spent heavily on regular advertising — by 1969, they were the largest product advertisers on television.
Alarmed, public health advocates mounted anti-smoking campaigns, and in April 1970 President Richard Nixon signed legislation banning cigarette advertising on television. This took effect the following year, and the Carson ad was the last to appear in this country.
The ad itself is a fascinating one, presenting a Victorian-era women's choir singing about how they don't want to vote or smoke or disobey their husbands, while sneaking surreptitious puffs on a cigarette between lines. It then cuts to a fashionable 1970s model smoking a Virginia Slim, a brand sold as a "women's cigarette" — implying that her freedom to choose her own cigarette marks her as a liberated woman. Meanwhile, the jingle in the background assures us that Virginia Slims women have "Come a long, long way!"
That pitch took advantage of then-current events by linking smoking to women's liberation and feminism. In much the same way, the decades-long (and still popular) Marlboro ad campaign featuring a tough-guy cowboy called "The Marlboro Man" links smoking to manliness. The fact that smoking likely led to the deaths of numerous male models featured in the ads — along with John Wayne, the poster boy of the American movie fascination with the cowboy — seemed to not bother the company at all.
Enjoy a Vintage Marlboro Ad!
As advocates argued it would, the 1971 advertising ban worked, albeit slowly. Smoking levels began to decline in the population, causing the cigarette companies to mount a decades-long, rabid, science-assaulting quest to assure the population that there were no known unhealthy effects of smoking — this despite their own research to the contrary. (See the Al Pacino and Russell Crowe vehicle The Insider if you want Hollywood's take on that story.)
Eventually, Big Tobacco was forced to admit that their product was hazardous. In 1998, the tobacco Master Settlement Agreement was reached between the largest cigarette manufacturers and the U.S. government, resulting in payments from the companies to the states to reimburse them for the healthcare costs of cigarettes, along with an agreement to limit advertising to minors. It was a long, strange battle, perhaps the most protracted one ever fought in this country between the government and an industry.
Equally as interesting as the public health history is the media one. There's a fascinating argument to be made that the loss of ad revenue following the 1971 ban resulted in the 30-second television ad. Up until then, ads had run for 60 seconds, but when the tobacco company was forced to remove its dollars, the television companies had to figure out a way to replace the lost revenue, and they did so by selling shorter, cheaper ads. This was the first step in the decreasing length of ads (congruent with the shortening of attention spans) that has continued until this day, with five-second ads common on both TV and the Internet.
And it's not just television that has changed. Magazines used to be littered with full-page glossy photos of people on mountains and in sports cars smiling and puffing away; now these same images feature people consuming protein bars or power drinks. The same effect can be seen in movies. After 2007, when the MPAA announced that smoking would be a factor in film ratings (a character smoking now virtually guarantees a movie at least a PG-13 rating), on-screen smoking has declined so quickly that it's now almost shocking when a character lights up. Watching an old film in which characters seem to light a cigarette every time there's a conversation over 30 seconds long is like entering another world, one that seems unimaginable today.
The ripple effect can be felt all over our entertainment world. Lounge singers and comedians used to routinely smoke onstage, and actors frequently served as spokespeople for tobacco companies. When the band Brownsville Station recorded "Smokin' in the Boys Room" in 1973 — and even when Motley Crue covered it in 1985 — sneaking off to smoke in the bathroom and blow the evidence (of whatever it was you were smoking) out the window was a recognizable element of teen life; these days it's a virtually unfathomable concept.
Or is it? Although smoking has begun to fade out of our culture, tobacco has not. Vaping, the industry claims, is a perfectly healthy activity - although health experts strongly disagree. It seems that the more some things change, the more they stay the same, although "Vapin' in the Boys Room" doesn't quite have the same ring to it.
The Last Cigarette Ad To Appear on Television