PRINT May 1986


Smoke signals.

“SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: SMOKING Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema, And May Complicate Pregnancy.”

Buy some and die. It’s a hard pitch. How do you sell people what has been proved bad for them? How do you persuade people to buy something that might kill them? Do you try to fool them or to help them fool themselves? Tobacco is all the same, but every brand’s image is different. Do you create a language of counterimages and cryptic inversions of meaning?

In London recently there were billboards everywhere with the image of scissors cut out of purple fabric. Near one corner was the British version of The Warning: “Cigarettes can seriously damage your health.” But I couldn’t figure out if this was a cigarette ad or an antismoking ad. It was the most abstract ad I’d ever seen. I wanted to stop people on the street and ask them what it meant, but I didn’t. I still don’t know. Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. It’s a long way from “Lucky Strike is clean and pure . . . kind to your delicate membranes.” It’s a long way from the dancing cigarette pack with the great gams to these dada cutout cutters.

British cigarette ads have been weird for a long time because they aren’t allowed to contain humans. I remember one in which the pack was a power plug in a wall socket in an elegant home. In America you can’t sell cigarettes on TV anymore but there are plenty of ads for Captain Black pipe tobacco and Garcia y Vega, “an honest cigar.” The logic is complex. You can pour all the beer you want on TV but you can’t drink it.

Soft sell takes on a new meaning with this one: “If you smoke, please try Carlton.” There’s no image in this ad. Just that message, plus of course The Warning and the tar and nicotine figures in fine print. Carlton is not trying to get anybody to smoke. But they are willing to service an existing addiction.

“Surgeon General’s Warning: Quitting Smoking Now Greatly Reduces Serious Risks to Your Health.”

Cigarette ads, like the brands they represent, are among the most semiotically abstract advertisements. They seduce by association, they create confusion. They pull your smoking strings. They use fear as if it were sex. Cigarette ads, maybe more than any other, are designed to work on a “target audience” that smokes for reasons that it doesn’t know. Relax. Drink in the deep rich golden flavor. Feel the taste.

Newport uses the slogan “alive with pleasure.” (Sample anagram for what’s in a cigarette name: Newport, wetporn). Salem is into Spirit. Images: two girls and a guy on a sled, three girls tackling one guy with a football. “You’ve got what it takes. Share the spirit. Share the refreshment.” Spirit is breath. Share the guy, share the breath. Salem is into downhill runs, as is Vantage, which is into skiing images, that cool slide downhill. Vantage emphasizes performance. “Performance counts. The thrill of real cigarette taste in low tar.” Newport and Salem and Kool packs are green and aquamarine as a babbling spring brook.

Why do you call a brand of cigarettes Merit? When you smoke a cigarette have you earned it? Remember, Merit spelled inside out is Timer. Today’s Merit ads say “Get a taste of it,” with images of attractive men and women on yachts at sea. Merit is a cigarette that’s about “good taste.” It’s a cigarette with artificial flavor added. Merit is the cigarette packaged in “caution yellow” for the person with a big flavor appetite and a healthy amount of cancer paranoia.

True was the first documentary-style cigarette. It was the realism cigarette that said that everyone else’s cigarette was False. True was the first cigarette with no image except the facts. Later, True evolved into True Blue (and it’s raison d’être True Green), making a play on the constancy and fidelity sought by quitting smokers (among others).

Benson and Hedges started out as a snob cigarette but when they went to 100 millimeters they became a comedy cigarette. They were sold on how funny they were when that extra length always managed to get in the way. Soon there was another cigarette one millimeter sillier.

Marlboro is a cigarette that’s as big as the great outdoors. Marlboro’s symbol is the granite-faced Marlboro Man, the outsider cowpoke spirit of America. He’s always frozen in motion. (Ever since they took him off the tube.) And he looks happy in freeze-frame, like a ghost that doesn’t know he’s dead, suspended forever in the exhilaration of mid gallop. Come to Marlboro Country (More labor country.) Ride a range that never ends, help the Marlboro man round up that big herd of riderless horses.

What sort of man smokes Camel lights? Your basic romancer of stones, Indiana jones kind of guy—a khaki-shined guy lighting up in an African cafe. “Camel Lights. It’s a whole new world.” Remember “I’d walk a mile for a Camel.” And don’t forget Camel spelled inside out is Male C.

What was the message of the longtime Tareyton campaign? “I’d rather fight than switch." Remember all those models with black eyes received, ostensibly, for defending their choice of cigarette. Today’s Tareyton smoker might find a real fight in the new, segregated world of smoking sections.

Virginia Slims celebrates women’s freedom to smoke. “You’ve come a long way, baby.” A woman’s cigarette, with a woman’s name, produced by a company named Philip Morris.

“Surgeon General’s Warning: Smoking by Pregnant Women May Result in Fetal Injury, Premature Birth, And Low Birth Weight.”

R. J. Reynolds, another human-sounding conglomerate, has the nerve to write us an ad called “What not to do in bed.” “You can read. You can rest. You can sleep You can make phone calls. . . . ” You get the idea. “But don’t ever light up a cigarette when you’re in bed.” Your cigarette-maker cares about you. Cute.

The cliche goes “gay as a Lark.” The “Show us your Lark pack” TV campaign, in which Lark-smokers revealed themselves for the cameras, seemed to say that low-tar cigarettes were coming out of the closet. The Marlboro man was already out there. For blatant sex, there’s still the wanton model in a bathing suit cooing “Light my Lucky.” LSMFT, which sounds like classified-ad sex code, was the old Lucky slogan. Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco. Lucky Strike inside-out is Tri Like Suck.

A man and a woman smoke with abandon on the beach of a tiny tropical islet where they’ve landed their boat. They’re smoking Parliament’s “Perfect Recess.” “Recess (Webster): A break from activity for rest or relaxation. Recess (Parliament): A unique filter for extra smooth taste and low tar enjoyment.” Parliament spelled inside out is Mental Raip.

Confused? Me too. Maybe it’s time for a flavor break. If you smoke, please try one of my Carltons. And remember, Carlton spelled inside out is Lac no Tar.

Glenn O’Brien writes a column on advertising for Artforum.