When Cigarettes Invaded TV: 5 Big Tobacco stories revealed


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If you didn't start watching TV until after 1971, then chances are you've never seen a cigarette commercial outside of a retrospective special. When the medium came into its own in the 1940s-50s, Big Tobacco was one of the first industries not only to advertise on television, but also to pick up the tab for entire shows. The commercials grew more elaborate over the years, using everything from cute animation to glamorous women and men to promote their cancerous wares. Sure, we all know now that smoking is bad, but boy did they know how to make it look tantalizing back in the day!

1. The Cigarette Company that saved I Love Lucy from being canceled

It's true. I Love Lucy had been turned down by General Foods and several other companies. In fact, the sitcom probably would've never seen the light of day had Philip Morris not taken a chance on it. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz dutifully promoted the sponsor's products, even though Lucy's real-life preferred brand was Chesterfield (she stashed her own smokes in empty packs of PMs on the set). Johnny Roventini, longtime Philip Morris spokesman, was an actual bellhop working in New York when he was spotted by a marketing exec. A childhood illness had stunted his growth, so although he was 22 years of age, he was only four feet tall and had a somewhat child-like voice. Johnny's contract with Philip Morris made him the world's first "living trademark."

2. How Marlboro got Rebranded as a Man's Cigarette

Marlboro was originally promoted as a women's brand. By the early 1960s, the world had become a complex, stressful place"¦President Kennedy had been assassinated, and Americans and Soviets lived in fear of The Bomb. The U.S. Surgeon General published a pesky report that stated cigarette smoking might be dangerous to one's health. Marketing execs put their heads together, trying think of an image that allowed a man to be his own man while getting away from it all. The perfect image dawned like thunder "“ a cowboy! Elaborate commercials showing men with perfectly chiseled features rounding up stray colts while the theme to The Magnificent Seven played in the background made even non-smokers long to visit Marlboro Country.

3. Playing the Feminist Angle

When Philip Morris introduced Virginia Slims in 1968, the company pressed every possible feminist button when it came to their marketing. Commercials and print ads (click here to view a TV spot) emphasized how oppressed women were in the past, and times had changed so radically that women even had their own longer, slimmer cigarette (available in a "purse pack"). V-Slims was actually the very last cigarette ever advertised on U.S. television. And perhaps we're picking a nit here, but if they were trying to emphasize how liberated and empowered women were, why did they still refer to them as "baby"?

4. Cigarette Breaks on The Flintstones' set

An animated prime-time series was a completely new idea and a questionable venture in 1960, so when Hanna-Barbera pitched The Flintstones, they accepted whatever sponsor agreed to take them on, and in this case it happened to be Winston cigarettes. Much like Lucy and Desi, Fred, Barney, and the Bedrock faithful were shown smoking the sponsor's brand in episode tags. (For the grammar wonks in our audience, please note that Winston later changed their jingle to "Winston tastes good as a cigarette should.") Once The Flintstones became a hit, Hanna Barbera was able to secure a new sponsor, Welch's Grape Juice. This proved a public relations benefit, since demographic studies showed that even though the program was aimed at adults, the show had just as many younger fans.

5. And one majestic Public Service Announcement

On the other side of the coin, there were many anti-smoking commercials aired during this time, but perhaps none as poignant as this Public Service Announcement filmed by The King and I star Yul Brynner, who was suffering from lung cancer and knew that he'd be gone by the time the spot aired.