Cowboys, Camels, and Kids: Does Advertising Turn People into Smokers?

By Sullum, Jacob | Reason, April 1998 | Go to article overview

Cowboys, Camels, and Kids: Does Advertising Turn People into Smokers?


Sullum, Jacob, Reason


On January 1, 1971, the Marlboro Man rode across the television screen one last time. At midnight a congressional ban on broadcast advertising of cigarettes went into effect, and the smoking cowboy was banished to the frozen land of billboards and print ads. With the deadline looming, bleary-eyed, hung-over viewers across the country woke to a final burst of cigarette celebration. "Philip Morris went on a $1.25-million ad binge New Year's Day on the Dick Cavett, Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin shows," The New York Times reported. "There was a surfeit of cigarette ads during the screening of the bowl games." And then they were gone. American TV viewers would no longer be confronted by happy smokers frolicking on the beach or by hapless smokers losing the tips of their extra-long cigarettes between cymbals and elevator doors. They would no longer have to choose between good grammar and good taste.

This was widely considered an important victory for consumers. The Times Wondered whether the ad ban was "a signal that the voice of the consumer, battling back, can now really make itself heard in Washington." A New Yorker article tracing the chain of events that led to the ban concluded, "To an increasing degree, citizens of the consumer state seem to be perceiving their ability to turn upon their manipulators, to place widespread abuses of commercial privilege under the prohibition of laws that genuinely do protect the public, and, in effect, to give back to the people a sense of controlling their own lives."

As these comments suggest, supporters of the ban viewed advertising not as a form of communication but as a mysterious force that seduces people into acting against their interests. This was a common view then and now, popularized by social critics such as Vance Packard and John Kenneth Galbraith. In The Affluent Society (1958), Galbraith argued that manufacturers produce goods and then apply "ruthless psychological pressures" through advertising to create demand for them. In The Hidden Persuaders (1957), Packard described advertising as an increasingly precise method of manipulation that can circumvent the conscious mind, influencing consumers without their awareness. He reinforced his portrait of Madison Avenue guile with the pseudoscientific concept of subliminal messages: seen but not seen, invisibly shaping attitudes and actions. The impact of such ideas can be seen in the controversy over tobacco advertising. The federal court that upheld the ban on broadcast ads for cigarettes quoted approvingly from another ruling that referred to "the subliminal impact of this pervasive propaganda."

Eliminating TV and radio commercials for cigarettes, of course, did not eliminate criticism of tobacco advertising. In 1985 the American Cancer Society, which decades earlier had called for an end to cigarette ads through "voluntary self-regulation," endorsed a government ban on all forms of tobacco advertising and promotion. The American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, the American Heart Association, and the American Lung Association also began advocating a ban. Beginning in the mid-'80s, members of Congress introduced legislation that would have prohibited tobacco advertising, limited it to "tombstone" messages (black text on a white background), or reduced its tax deductibility. None of these bills got far.

In the '90s, since Congress did not seem inclined to impose further censorship on the tobacco companies, David Kessler, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, decided to do it by bureaucratic fiat. Reversing the FDA's longstanding position, he declared that the agency had jurisdiction over tobacco products. In August 1996 the FDA issued regulations aimed at imposing sweeping restrictions on the advertising and promotion of cigarettes and smokeless tobacco. Among other things, the regulations prohibited promotional items such as hats, T-shirts, and lighters; forbade brand-name sponsorship of sporting events; banned outdoor advertising within 1,000 feet of a playground, elementary school, or high school; and imposed a tombstone format on all other outdoor signs, all indoor signs in locations accessible to minors, and all print ads except those in publications with a negligible audience under the age of 18. …

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Cowboys, Camels, and Kids: Does Advertising Turn People into Smokers?
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