In modern society, smoking is generally viewed as hurtful but tolerable. It doesn’t necessarily kill you, and it’s legal unlike lots of other drugs, after all. In the US alone approximately 37.8 million adults smoke, and 480,000 die every year due to various smoking-related diseases.
On average, women smoke less than men, but that has been changing over the years. Tobacco companies eventually came to a realization that it’s unprofitable to exclude half of the population from their advertising campaigns and started developing marketing strategies, specifically focused on women. This is how “feminine” cigarettes gave rise to a whole new culture of female smokers.
It wasn’t always this way
In the 21st century, smoking is recognized as a potentially life-threatening habit, with numerous bans, fines and anti-smoking campaigns developed to reduce the number of smokers. In this tough environment, manufacturers of combustible and electronic cigarettes, cigars and vape pens have to rely on constant advertising in order to sell their products. Vape pen brands have the upper hand in this since vaping is considered to be less harmful than smoking, but others mainly turn to style and classiness to appeal to their customers. Essentially, it’s a battle of adverts, where manufacturers of tobacco products compete with health professionals.
Nowadays, it’s not shocking to see a woman with a cigarette. In fact, tobacco control campaigns pay less attention to girls and women than cigarette companies, preferring less gender-specific and perhaps less effective approach. However, the attitude towards female smoking wasn’t always like this. Back when leading a healthy lifestyle wasn’t yet a trend, and vapor pens had yet to come into existence, smoking was often political.
Torches of freedom
Before the 20th century society actively tried to prevent women from smoking, although for completely different reasons than we could argue today. It was seen as inappropriate and immoral habit for women to have. Some states passed laws that prohibited women from smoking in public or even from smoking altogether. The International Tobacco League strongly advised filmmakers to refrain from portraying females who smoked unless their characters were prostitutes or “fallen women”. The fact that smoking was reserved for men twisted cigarettes into a way for women to challenge social stereotypes and misogynic views.
In the late 1920s, cigarette companies realized the potential of women as a targeted group. They launched a few advertising campaigns aimed at women and began trying to break the social stigma around women’s smoking. In 1929 Edward Bernays, a specialist in public relations who was hired by the president of the American Tobacco Company to “recruit” female smokers, made a decision to pay women to smoke during the Easter Sunday Parade in New York. With a writer and feminist Ruth Hale encouraging women to join in the march and “light another torch of freedom”, this open denial of social taboos was deeply shocking. Bernays hired photographers to document the march and made sure the pictures were then published all over the world.
The pictures and footage sparked a heated discussion about equality and turned cigarettes into tools of protest for women who desired freedom over their choices. The campaign had immense success. In 1923 5% of all sold cigarettes were purchased by women and in 1935 this number rose to 12%. In 1965, 36 years after the march, that percentage peaked at 33.3%.
The phenomenon of Virginia Slims
While Virginia Slims wasn’t the first female-oriented brand, it was certainly the first successful one. A cultural revolution of sorts started in 1968 when Phillip Morris launched a cigarette brand designed for women, with a catchy slogan saying “You’ve come a long way, baby” and themes of liberation and freedom lying at the basis of the marketing campaign. The ads compared the past of oppression to the new period of female empowerment through photographs of repressed women next to the proud female smokers.
Virginia Slims targeted young women and promoted their cigarettes as “slimmer” and “more fitting for a woman’s hand”, as opposed to “fat” cigarettes designed for men. The contrast and ideas of linking independence to smoking were exploited successfully, and soon the rates of smoking among teenage girls increased. Virginia Slims claimed to have designed cigarettes specifically for women: stylish, thin and glamorous, highlighting the feminine aspect in a completely new way. Suddenly, being a woman stopped meaning inferiority. In fact, Virginia Slims proclaimed that women were superior to men in several ads.
The slogan “You’ve come a long way, baby” was largely used in Virginia Slims ads between the 1960s and 1970s, emphasizing the victory of feminism and comparing the right to smoke to the right to vote. It was later changed to “It’s a woman thing” and subsequently to “Find your voice”, though none of these resonated with the public as much as the original one.
Modern advertising methods and why they are harmful
Smoking has to be presented as sociable and respectable in order to be attractive. Companies strive to bind it to the image of a slender beautiful woman in fashionable clothes and create an attraction towards the brand through attraction towards a certain idea. This attachment is achieved through a carefully designed brand name, packaging, promotion, and endorsement. Basically, marketing tries to tailor the exterior of tobacco products to their female customers’ psychological and socially expected needs, in addition to creating a few of those when it’s sufficient. It’s aggressive manipulation that exploits women’s insecurities and often adds up to them, forcing women into conformation.
This way, women who wish to identify with certain characteristics, such as being fit, fashionable and attractive, are more likely to buy cigarettes of a brand that adopted all these traits and portrayed them in the advertising campaign. Those who are new to smoking might fall for the social aspect of it. Advertising is also used to reduce or eliminate the fears surrounding smoking through the production of “low-nicotine” and “low-tar” cigarettes since women are statistically more likely to have concerns about their health than men. For instance, a vaporizer pen may be presented as a healthier substitute for cigarettes, while still posing danger to non-smokers.
All in all, although the marketing strategies have changed over the years, the factual truth remains the same: companies don’t sell cigarettes, they sell lifestyles.
About the Author
Thanush Poulsen is a Danish blogger who is concerned about tobacco companies targeting such population groups as teens, women, and seniors. His articles aim to represent tobacco campaigns as they are and show people what is the real purpose behind the “eye-filling” promos.