Digital History - Histoire Numérique

History of the American Tobacco Company and Tobacco Advertising

Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet -it's toasted

American Tobacco Company

The American Tobacco Company was founded under James Buchanan Duke, who also introduced the modern cigarette manufacturing and marketing. Although the American Tobacco Company had been successful in advertising tobacco products to men, there was a growing interest to engage the female consumer to increase profit. From 1890-1930s, prohibitory regulation had been put in place that coincided with the rise of the mass market in America, which was encouraged by the advertisements, especially in the form of print media.[1] However, while the Depression caused a decline in sales, the American Tobacco Company continued to advertise to women. Cheryl Warsh states: “The onset of the Great Depression dampened the market for the sale of material commodities, but not necessarily the sale of the image…”[2] As a result, many economists and advertisers acknowledged the potential growth of the nicotine industry that could be produced by targeting and selling tobacco products to women. The J. Walter Thompson Advertising Agency, George Washington Hill, and Edward Bernays serving under the American Tobacco Company, which controlled over 90% of the tobacco market in the United States in the early twentieth century, engaged in the elevated promotion of tobacco products to American women. However, the production of tobacco product was a vastly male activity, whereas consumption was generally a female arena.[3] In terms of marketing the tobacco products, corporations were influenced Edward A. Bernays, founder of Modern Public Relations. Thus, the advertisements that took place in the 1920s and 1930s were highly sophisticated and powerful, and it influenced women to undertake smoking. During the time, magazines and newspapers were the most important mediums in tobacco advertising, as both could reach a widespread audience in the United States. The American Tobacco Company under President Hill competed with the brand Lucky Strike, reaching 6 billion sales in the first year of production. The main three brands in circulation at the time were R. J. Reynold’s Camels, American Tobacco Lucky Strike, and Liggett & Meyers Chesterfield, which comprised of 82% of the American market.[4] Through Bernays and Hill’s Lucky Strike slogans aimed at women, the American Tobacco Company increased its earnings from $12 million in 1926 to $40 million in the 1930s. The number of female smokers was estimated to have increased from 6% in 1924, to 18% in 1935.[5] However, to achieve the level of success the American Tobacco Company did in the 1930s, the overall advertisements tactics must be considered.

Advertisement and Tobacco Products

While it has become common knowledge that tobacco consumption is bad for people’s health, back in the 1930s it was rarely acknowledged. Indeed, during the time, cigarettes were exempted from all meaningful legislation, in part because of lack of understanding of the consequences of nicotine consumption, but also due to the tobacco industry’s lobbying power. The advertisements were promoted in women’s magazines in a way that made cigarettes look stylish and desirable. Moreover, cigarette advertising gets lots of financial support due to its high success. The support can reach over six billion dollars annually in cigarette advertising and promotions.[6] Ultimately, women were “invited to imagine themselves as participants in the modern world and encourage to remake themselves as modern feminine subjects through their consumption practices.”[7] There was emergence of transportation, communication, industrialization, urbanization, and modernization, which was traditionally conceived through a male lens, as women were often excluded due to their domestic roles. Advertisements for tobacco products were not generally focused on the female as a consumer but rather as an entertainer or were featured for the sake of selling the product to men. Women magazines such as Vogue, explored the culture of consumption, and encouraged readers to remake themselves into modern women.[8] The cigarette also had to be advertised and articulated in society in a certain way to remain legal and within reach. Thus, the American Tobacco Company often framed cigarette smoking as glamorous and healthful. The purpose of the advertisements were ultimately to get the women to consume a product such as tobacco, and to use messages to convince the consumer that it was a need rather than merely desire. [9]

Furthermore, the connection of the cigarette to emancipation was done to self-validate the female smoker. Indeed, to achieve this, the American Tobacco Company had to hire agencies and spend millions of dollars to develop ad campaigns to boost sales, and encourage women to consume a product that was historically enjoyed mainly by white men. In 1929, the company spent $6.5 million (roughly $80 million today) on print and radio advertisement.[10] When the American Tobacco Company made George Washington Hill the President, he became obsessed with the brand Lucky Strike specifically, hoping it would bring the company back on top of the tobacco market. The brand Lucky Strike debuted in 1916, and used the slogan “It’s Toasted” in its advertising to suggest the flavourful appeal. Hill was essentially a ‘one man ad agency’ whose interest in life was to see Lucky Strike retain first place in the tobacco wars, ahead of Camel and Chesterfield: “He reportedly devoted most of his time to thinking up ideas that might induce people to buy Luckies, and he spent millions of dollars annually to put his ideas into action.”[11] Hill published the advertisements in magazines and the page ads that were in the daily papers such as, The Richmond Collegian. In 1929, he hired Edward Bernays to explore the female market in hopes of increasing the companies overall status. From 1925 until 1931, the company managed to double its profits from $21 million to $46 million, yet its advertising budget nearly tripled from $8.7 million to $24.8 million, as it had to expand its print media and post campaigns. After achieving market dominance, the company scaled back spending, but during the Great Depression over $10 million annually was spent on magazines and newspaper advertisements. By 1936, Hill’s son George Washington Hill Jr. took over the company and continued his father’s aggressive ad campaigning until 1950.[12] In a published statement by the American Tobacco Company in 1930, Hill emphasized the importance of the advertisement by holding: “We sincerely attribute a large measure of the prosperity of our company to the assistance that newspaper advertising has given us. Second only to the importance to the quality of the product, in our opinion, is the question of its exploitation of advertising.”[13] Hill and Bernays worked throughout the 1930s to continue promoting tobacco products to women, which was not only successful but also played a role in the shifting attitudes towards women in American society more broadly. Indeed, the campaigns can be broken down into various categories, which demonstrate the different approaches the American Tobacco Company took in targeting women.

[1] Cheryl Krasnick Warsh, “Smoke and Mirrors: Gender Representation in North American Tobacco and Alcohol Advertisements Before 1950,” Social History Vol. 31 No. 62(1998): 184,

[2] Warsh, “Smoke and Mirrors,” 184.

[3] Warsh, 186.

[4] Warsh, 189.

[5] Warsh, 199.

[6] Richard Pollay, “Tricks of the Tobacco Trade,” Journal of Business Administration and Policy Analysis Vol. 24-26 (1996-98): 232,

[7] Penny Tinkler and Cheryl Warsh, “FEMININE MODERNITY IN INTERWAR BRITAIN AND NORTH AMERICA: Corsets, Cars, and Cigarettes,” Journal of Women’s History Vol. 20 No. 3 (2008): 113,

[8] Tinkler and Warsh, “Feminine Modernity,” 115.

[9] Maja Bajac-Carter and Norma Jones, “Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet: An Exploration of Early Cigarette Advertising,” in We Are What We Sell: How Advertising Shapes American Life…And Always Has Volume 1, e. Danielle Sarver Coombs and Bob Batchelor (Santa Barbara, California: Prager, ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2014), 126.

[10] Bajac-Carter and Jones, “Reach for a Lucky,” 126.

[11] John McDonnough and Karen Egolf The Advertising Age Encyclopedia of Advertising (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2002) 64.

[12] McDonough and Jones, The Advertising Age, 64.

[13] National Better Business Bureau, “Advertising Practices of the American Tobacco Company,” American Tobacco Company (1930): 1,

History of the American Tobacco Company and Tobacco Advertising