Tobacco advertising refers to the advertising and promotional activity of tobacco products by the tobacco industry. In many countries tobacco products advertising and promotion is banned or strictly regulated because of the adverse health, economic and social effects stemming from smoking and nicotine addiction. Controversy has been caused by the attempts of the industry to target youth in campaigns linked to motor sports, music and fashion. Public policies related to smoking and tobacco advertising are typically perceived and portrayed as cutting a fine line between protecting public health and curtailing individual freedoms.
Tobacco advertising has its roots prior to the 20th century in the fast growing American consumer society. In his book Advertising and the Transformation of American Society 1865-1920 (1990), advertising history scholar James Norris notes that cigarette and tobacco advertising were pioneers in the broader advertising market. Norris quotes studies and testimonials that indicate tobacco advertising in its earlier years was not effective in increasing sales among smokers but primarily in converting non-smokers to smokers. The industry was aware of this and targeted the adverts towards attracting broader and younger target audiences to a smoking lifestyle.
Norris observes that until the end of the first decade of the 20th century cigars were the predominant tobacco products on the American market, hence the subject of most advertising campaigns. With the onset of machine cigarettes after the turn of the century, cigarettes overtook cigars in popularity. Marketing became more focused on the poorer classes but still retained the "snob appeal" of a leisurely, smoking lifestyle. By 1920, women were specifically targeted in cigarette campaigns as they were perceived by the industry to be the greatest single group of non-smokers, who could easily be converted to smoking.
Tobacco advertising expanded and became more creative in the 1950s after the advent of the mass television broadcast. Other forms of promotion took over, most notably large sponsorship deals, which concentrated on the movie industry and sports. Sports teams and events sponsorship in particular became very prevalent throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, especially after national television networks in Western countries banned direct cigarette commercials. In a contemporary article in Washington Monthly Magazine (1989), journalist Jason DeParle observed a pervasive presence of tobacco sponsorship in almost all major sports venues and championships at the time, including women's tennis, international soccer, skiing, horse riding and auto racing.
DeParle laments the perceived "marriage of cigarettes and sports" and warns it has three important consequences. DeParle argues that by portraying healthy athletes promoting tobacco, it "obscures the connection of cigarettes and disease" on a subliminal level. Also by using sport, the tobacco industry very effectively reaches the young audience it seeks to convert to a life of smoking. Advertising on sports car liveries and stadiums also circumvents the instituted ban on television adverts, forcing the TV networks to telecast cigarette brand names and logos. By the first decade of the 21st century, new regulations and public opinion forced tobacco advertising to be gradually dropped from major sports events including world tennis, ski championships and Formula 1.
Nevertheless, tobacco products advertising remains an issue as lower profile promotional activities and campaigns continue to target vulnerable groups such as adolescents and children. In his book on the issue, titled Peddling Poison: The Tobacco Industry and Kids (2005), criminal justice and health policy scholar Clete Snell suggests that in the 21st century the U.S. tobacco industry still spends in excess of $10 billion annually on advertising, much of it targeted at younger age groups.
Snell argues that the advertising agencies are tempted to focus on youth because the addictive qualities of nicotine increase chances of lifelong adoption. Snell believes this is also because new customers need to be convinced constantly as 3,500 Americans quit smoking every day, with an additional 1,200 dying daily from smoking-related illnesses. The author quotes industry studies and reports, advising marketing strategists to purposefully make cigarettes attractive to teenagers by portraying them as "one part of the illicit pleasures of drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana or having sex." Such reports have led to tobacco companies being frequently engaged in long litigation battles on the issue before U.S. courts. Tobacco advertising cannot be completely banned in the U.S. because of First Amendment rights allowing advertising and promotion of a legal product. Other countries, most notably the E.U. states, Australia and Canada have introduced total tobacco advertising bans in all electronic and print media.