CIGARETTE SEDUCTION: How Cigarettes Brands Work by Alan Brody

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How Cigarettes Brands Work

By Alan Brody
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People first became aware of the monetary value of cigarette advertising - negative as it was - in 1988. That was when a New Jersey court awarded the late Rose Cipollone's estate $400,000 from the Lorillard tobacco company. For the first time, a relationship between smoking and cigarette ads had been established as a legal reality with a dollar value attached.

As it turns out the award was only a temporary setback for the industry because the health warnings on the cigarette packs enabled a higher court to overturn the award. The health warning labels were upheld as a reasonable warning to smokers about the dangers of the product. Still, Cipollone's estate proved that she was lured by those ads prior to 1966 when labels appeared. And even though the victory was fleeting, people got the point: advertising is worth something. It has some effect on getting people to smoke and it seems to keep them smoking.

As the so-called habit of smoking came to be recognized as a true addiction, courts were more apt to buy the argument that people were lured into smoking--particularly in the early 50's when cigarette ads came with virtual promises of health benefits. That was one of the key reasons that the Carter estate won their case against Brown & Williamson in 1996--Grady Carter was seduced by the promises of the 50's and then became hopelessly addicted.

When advertising became more subtly seductive it was the revelation in the late 80's R.J. Reynolds announced a new brand of cigarettes for African-Americans they aroused the ire of the new Surgeon-General who was offended both as the nation's chief doctor and as an African-American whose people were being targeted by this unhealthy product. No sooner had someone raised the point that cigarette companies had been doing that for years with women when the compelling evidence of it emerged. "Internal documents" from a marketing company working for R.J. Reynolds showed that indeed, women hadn't been forgotten and a new breed of liberated blue collar woman had been targeted. According to the leaked plans, they were getting ready to launch a new brand called Dakota for the virile, blue-collar female who had no more than a high school education, liked tractor pulls, boyfriends and identified strongly with Roseanne, the hefty TV star.

The idea that cigarettes can actually be aimed at specific groups of people - in essence, fatally exploiting their weaknesses - shocked people. The tone of the press reports that covered the story seemed to suggest "how could they?" Yet marketing is marketing and as long as cigarettes are a legal product why shouldn't people expect tobacco companies to behave differently from soap marketers who targeting their customers by their personality profile. Who cares if soap marketers have a fine understanding of the sexual and mythical underpinnings of cleaning - that washing with soap is a way of removing sin or controlling sexual desire. It only soap. But with cigarettes that is different because of the disturbing thought that not only is tobacco dangerous but what if the cigarettes meant something?

Cigarette Seduction is about what cigarettes really mean. and the insights arm us with knowledge, a vocabulary of ideas to deal with the issues of cigarette smoking. It also follows the divergent marketing approaches taken by the majors when dealing with their public image: the one, Philip Morris taking the "high road," inculcating religion and national honor into their marketing plans while the other, RJ Reynolds, out of touch with climate of non-smokers, succeeding with a transparently dangerous approach--talking back to their critics and developing a cartoon Camel that attracts children--only to provoke and society's consequent retribution.

It confronts the fundamental questions of this practice which is at once atavistic, dangerous, unexplained and widely practiced. This is a sophisticated, media-savvy investigation into the mystery of smoking the way it is: what smoking really means and how that information can be used to quit or simply to gain an understanding of the smokers' motivation business or social life.

To begin with, this is not an anti-smoking treatise. This author is no fan of smoking, but the fact is that in life we are often asked to sacrifice long-term health for the ability to function well on a day-to-day basis. Take the example of Psychology Today. It has been an organ of the American Psychological Association and as such, a quasi-medical journal. Yet, unlike the typical health or medical journal, while it was a for-profit publication it teemed with cigarette ads. While at one level it was purely mercenary, it also said that the mental health establishment tacitly supports smoking because cigarettes work as a kind of over-the-counter form of therapy.

Realistically, a healthy body is a wonderful thing but it is worthless without a functioning mind and that is where smoking retains its magic. People derive momentary power from smoking for a combination of reasons that go beyond imagination and physiology to reveal what is in effect the modern face - the avatar - of an old way of ordering our lives: living according to a set of dream stories and archetypes that we ordinarily call mythology. With cigarettes, we can consume them in a form of branded smoke.

With its long history and recurring supply of converts, cigarettes are not going to disappear. The proportion of smokers in the population seems to be declining (except that is, for women) but the absolute numbers are almost unchanged over the last twenty years. Over 50 million people in this country continue to smoke and from an economic point of view the tobacco industry is doing as well as or better than ever.

While opposition to smoking has become a virtual public policy smoking continues in spite of all the damning and conclusive evidence against and as such, the practice still remains an open mystery that both smokers and non-smokers have been unable to answer.

A study which promises an unblinking look at human frailty flirts with the possibility of stepping into an abyss. Much of smoking's appeal, after all, is as compensation for life's shortcomings. People yearn for impossible things and they are often unmentionable. Nonetheless, they are at the heart of smoking and this report affords the possibility of looking at both smoking and smokers in a true light. It is possible to learn how to read people from their brands. It is possible for people to learn about quitting smoking at a much deeper level than is usually offered by smokestop programs which are plagued by recidivism due to--among other reasons--their shallowness. Most interestingly, readers will discover a symbolic system, a kind of simple visual language underscoring the cigarette world that also tells us about our own world. In a milieu where graphics have gone from the decorative or in other cases a kind of preliterate pidgin to the highly informative language of visual technology and mass marketing, this study is eye-opening. The revelation of smoking is an intensified world of visual cues because smokers have put their health at risk for the symbolic rewards of cigarettes.

To the smokers among us that intend to remain in the fold, then they will smoke a little more knowingly once they realize that their Marlboro is a thinly disguised military award. And for those who don't want to smoke at all, they will find reinforcement in understanding what symbolic, if bogus rewards America's top brands offer the public. To those tracking the tobacco industry, For the rest of us, this as roadmap of the cigarette ethos and the way in which the industry will try to perpetuate its hold on the American psyche into the next century.


List of Chapters



In the deep background of smoking are two forgotten common ceremonies of primitive cultures - initiation and mass trances. How they have continued, in a disguised form as two of the most compelling reasons why so many people smoke.


It took several years before tobacco companies discovered the myth. By all accounts they seem to have discovered it by mistake. It took years before anyone got around to psychoanalyzing it in the twenties. But once they understood it they never let go. A look around the world shows that Madison Avenue wasn't the only place that knew a myth when it saw one. The French government did and the British fared rather well too.


An unblinking look at the great modern enigma: If smoking is deadly, and everyone knows it - why do we keep on doing it? Apparently it stems from a primally derived sense of self-control.


Like everything else in life, cigarettes have a history. Except this is an interesting one that reveals a few cultural milestones in ways we never quite saw them before.


Cigarettes are meaningful because they address the two things we can't live without.


Marlboro didn't just get that way. First it had to go through a sex-change, find the right symbol and ultimately the right myth. But with 76 per cent of white high school students starting out with Marlboro there has to be more to this than meets the teenagers recognizing it as an initiation ritual.


Now that you have read the interpretation - what exactly is the method. In simple, commonsensical terms.


Now we know why people start, what does the brand tell us about people who stay with them. Exactly what?


When a researcher was commissioned to do a study of cigarette lighter designs he searched for material in the erotic imagery associated with primitive fire gods. There's plenty of meaning in old flames.


Marlboro's former leading rival. Few women smoke this one - just Marlboro's laconic opposite-the man with wants to talk a lot.


After the dromedary: more about the Camel smoker.


The meaning of menthols and the power of bewitchment.


If Marlboro is popular with white kids, wait 'till you see what this one does for black and Hispanic kids. In one survey, 93 out of a hundred started with this brand. Meaning?


Enrichment, brownie points and intellectual insecurity are at the heart of the Merit smoker.


Why do Orientals and whitebread patricians love this brand....?


Welcome to the folks that consider their navels. Literally. But you would never have guessed why - until it was explained to you.


These brands begin with compensation. You figure out the rest....


You've come a long way baby, or have you?


Long a waning brand it still has a tie to 19th Century American folklore--enough to ignite a tepid revival.


Few people start out with these brands. Like Sam Johnson said - when you are "tired of London" you turn to these. Expect these smokers to be world weary like 60 Minutes' Mike Wallace who used to smoke Pall Malls.

21) BARCLAY: "MR. 007"

A brand this author has a particular affinity for. It reinvents the initiation theme but this time in a tux. A leading phony's brand.....


This bunch of flotsam and jetsam should have been dusted out of the marketplace years ago. But, like greasers, Elvis sightings, pony tails and bleached blondes they just try to hang around. Tough to get a fix on this bunch but here are a few ground rules anyway.


For all their big budgets and fancy campaigns these brands just never made it. Why wasn't anyone ready for Spud, Maryland, Century, Cambridge, Satin and so on?


Someone blows smoke in your eye from a $4 pack of cigarettes. Is that a come on or a put down? And what do you make of people who insist on smoking those foul-smelling French cigarettes? Brand meaning is culture based-but we take a quick look at brands in their home setting and what they mean when they are picked up at premium prices and a slightly stale condition at the local cigarette store.


People start smoking for one reason, maintain it for another and end up smoking for entirely different reasons altogether. Understanding these stages may give a smoker a better sense of control over themselves.


Yes they do. It's not easy and as one famous musician and ex-smoker put it, it's one of the things in life you are most proud of. After all, if you can lick smoking you lick anything. Some of the basic approaches covered with realistic warnings about their shortcomings.


We know the official ways to quit . But suppose you don't think you can adjust to life without smoking - like knowing that some deep part of your personality really depends on it and you have no psychologically satisfying way of replacing it. Try using the mythological approach. Once you understand the myth it feeds you can find ways to recreate it through other activities. Or maybe you will just learn how to change the myth. But the first step is knowing about it.


Suddenly, health officials are abuzz with big ideas like a smoke-free society. Is that likely? Are there new kinds of teen initiation? And what about these new things that pretend to be cigarettes but are really hi-tech nicotine transfusion devices? They may have failed at the market but there will be other attempts. What does that bode for smokers and non-smokers alike?

Introduction: People Begin Smoking as a Tribal Ritual

When this author began smoking as a teenager I did it with one eye on an older culture behind me. I was growing up in Africa where ancient rites of stick and spear fighting, initiation and sorcery could still be observed on the edges of society. My induction into smoking took place just like most other people's - with a feeling of guilt for once having made fun of adults that smoked and defiant for having taken on something so obviously dangerous.

But I was also struck at the time by a sense of inevitability and that my desire to smoke was something larger than myself. And as much as I was unable to handle the desire at an intellectual level I was also aware that as a teenager, I longed for some kind of initiation - a form of manifest, ritualized process that would guide me from youth to adulthood. For reasons that I could not fathom, smoking seemed to offer a solution to that.

As a white middle class teenager in a far way place my path to adulthood followed the typical patterns of western culture: music, popular culture, school, profession. That was all very reasonable. But on the other side of the tracks, away from the westernized middle class side of town I lived in - the indigenous Africans still lived out the old culture where tribal gatherings and ritualized initiation ceremonies were an ongoing occurrence that gave its adherents a sense of order in life.

As a Western child, I felt I was missing something and there would be no comparable ceremony to look forward to: a dramatic initiation test, acceptance and a permanent symbol of recognition. So when I took my first puff, I was doing what millions of westerners do but I was still vaguely aware of the meaning of those scenes played out along the grassy roadsides of less-traveled highways - the ritual beatings of initiates at open-air church groups or the stickfights between rival groups of shield-carrying warriors had some kind of relationship to this unexplainable act of smoking.

Back at college in the States, where my interest turned to advertising I noticed that after WWII, the typical approach to advertising, putting your client's name before the public and best foot forward had begun to give way to an entirely different approach--something I had suspected from my time in Africa: that beneath its hype advertising really was a business of selling products by interpreting the culture to establishing the status values the public should attach to the products.

It would seem that a fluency in multiple English-speaking cultures would give me a special advantage. In studying the basic books by the industry's immortals - Hopkins, Ogilvy, Caples and Reeves-it was clear that advertising at one level is that conventional portrait of how to put a product's best foot forward, creating a positive image and generally accentuating the positive. Reading their works, it seemed that the insights gained from my days in post-colonial Africa were quite alien in the First World. But when I read Vance Packard's Hidden Persuaders and the books by the advertising researchers he had interviewed in the 50's - Ernest Dichter, Louis Cheskin and Pierre Martineau who had revolutionized post-WWII marketing - it was clear that in fact I knew a lot.

To Ernest Dichter, the man who is widely regarded as the father of modern psychological research in advertising, the businessman proudly stepping out of his Rolls Royce is not that different from the African chief with his leopardskin, fly swish and feathers. Saying that the practices of American teenagers were as "fascinating a subject for investigation as the tribal customs and initiation rites of a primitive people," in the 1930's Dichter began this career of bringing cultural anthropology with a distinctly Freudian bent first to Chrysler, CBS and then to Madison Avenue at large.

Dichter's professional career had been based on a connection I had made in a forgotten part of the world: that the role of advertising in a consumer society is to discover what fills in for the status symbols and totemic objects that give our tribal counterparts their sense of identity and continuity.

The irony is that the subject of tribal initiation has become an uncomfortable one in Africa: westerners tend to ignore the indigenous cultures and Africans prefer to be seen in a more modern light. So the idea of American businessmen or American youth borrowing from horrific rituals that often resulted with scarring of initiates seemed uncertain at best. Yet smoking is not in any way a rational practice and over time, enough examples of hippies, skinheads, punks, Hell's Angels and pierced and tattooed teens have emerged, demonstrating that initiation is a deep psycho-mythological need that youth will seek regardless of whether or not society can provide it for them.

The surprise was just how much of this had already been anticipated by Madison Avenue. The original Marlboro Man had been famous for tribal markings of his own. Not for the tribal scars so common in Africa but an equivalent marking found among lighter-skinned people like the Polynesians, nomadic Arabs, Japanese yakuza and American Hell's Angels: the common tattoo. This is not a subject marketing books or the memoirs of retired marketing executives have emphasized. But the real story is that Madison Avenue had taken a symbol directly from our tribal past and broadcast it over the media as a selling point. By now it has become so ingrained in the culture that they can afford to curtail their advertising without seriously risking their market penetration.

In ad schools the success of Marlboro is a standard case study. Marlboro is, far and away, the most successful cigarette brand of all time and today, owns more than 25% of the U.S. market. It is usually described as a repackaged brand that came out in 1954. Its precursor, the original Marlboro, first appeared in the twenties and was sold to society ladies with such slogans as "Marlboro. Mild as May" and "Ivory Tips Protect Your Lips." Then, along came a marketing wizard by the name of George Weissman who recognized that in the light of health concerns, a filtered brand could be made to sell if it had a certain brand personality. To achieve that he took a failing woman's brand, repackaged and filtered it and gave it a new, macho image. He also spent about $200,000 - a fantastic sum in 1950's dollars - on various kinds of psychological and marketing research.

The success of Marlboro is legendary and it continues today. History records that George Weissman went on to become Chairman of the giant Philip Morris corporation. Marketing books, however, rarely examine the nature of the research that propelled the brand to the top. They never seem to ask just what Philip Morris was looking for in the package and why they chose to recycle a brand - a very rare practice in any market - when they could as easily have produced an entirely new one.

At the time, Philip Morris, like other tobacco companies was merely responding to the public health scare by bringing out a filtered cigarette. Since filters were a new concept at the time, it follows that they should have brought out an entirely new brand. Yet even though the classic 1954 advertisement with a Marlon Brando look-alike sporting a tattooed anchor on his hand is commonly found in books on advertising, (it took several years before they realized not just any macho man would do--it had to be a cowboy) its anthropological significance is never fully discussed.

One of the people behind the packaging was Louis Cheskin, a researcher who appeared in The Hidden Persuaders. His job was to test consumer response to the design by using such psychological test devices as a pupillometer, which measures emotional response from the dilation of the viewer's pupil, an eye-tracking machine to examine what they looked at and afterwards, a tachistoscope to see what they noticed and remembered. According to him, the key element on the bright red Marlboro pack was the crest. Since the brand came out just as young GI's were returning from an unsatisfactory war in Korea, it is clear that Philip Morris was after something with a war motif. Something that would appeal to returning soldiers. Something that looked like a medal.

That explains why Marlboro has a bright red "ribbon" at the top of the box, a crest that resembles a medal and a slogan borrowed from Caesar at his most victorious: "Veni. Vidi. Vici." I came. I saw. I conquered. Philip Morris also took the risk of retaining the Marlboro name because it echoed the military title of Sir Winston Churchill's renowned ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, a 17th Century general. Names of successful military leaders near times of war have a powerful resonance--roughly equivalent to the attention given General Colin Powell in the aftermath of the Gulf War.

Most authorities believe that cigarettes, which were once considered unmanly, first became popular as a result of World War I when soldiers picked up the habit from European soldiers in the trenches and cigarettes became part of the doughboys' rations. It seems obvious that two generations later a brilliant cigarette executive would find a marketing metaphor in war. More than that, it was Marlboro's special combination of elements that formed what is now recognizable as a myth: Marlboro is a hero's reward and as we know from the symbols that accompanied it, an enduring initiation symbol. By giving young soldiers returning from an unsatisfactory war with a phony medal on a stiff box, and using ads with tattoos, Marlboro went on to become Madison Avenue's greatest coup.

When marketing phenomena like these come under scrutiny, advertising people generally evade scrutiny by harping on the old stereotype that Madison Avenue people are superficial and couldn't think that deeply if they tried. Often, that seems true because the bulk of an ad agency's work comprises mundane advertising work for brands that have little opportunity to distinguish themselves - and it takes many uninspired types to provide the work. But those at the heart of the business - the ones that create the big, selling ideas - are endowed with a far superior education than the Hollywood stereotype would have us believe. They are astute, sophisticated, have an appreciation for consumer psychology and are receptive to ideas from unusual sources.

In any case, the process of "psychologizing" cigarettes had already begun after WWI when America's first psychoanalyst and translator of Freud's books, Dr. A.A. Brill, began doing work for Lucky Strike in the 1920's. At the outset he made two points that could be read as the strategy positions for two popular brands on the market today. Firstly, he said that women would interpret cigarettes as a torch of freedom - which is still the sales message behind brands like Philip Morris' Virginia Slims. Then he said cigarettes originally had a male sexual significance which, as we will see, is still the basic appeal of brands like Camel.

Being adept at marketing and willing to peer into the public's psyche is not all the cigarette companies have done. They have also ventured into the wider arena of public attitudes where their success may have been mixed but still innovative. In attempting to deflect the tide of negative public opinion, companies like Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds launched prominent campaigns - but with vastly different results. In the mid-eighties, Reynolds, which has always been the less subtle interpreter of the climate, produced a series of ads that did not push their brands but purported to discuss the "issues." This earned them plenty of attention but also backfired: public groups roundly opposed the campaign and the FTC forced them to eat many of their claims by running public retractions.

Philip Morris, which has always the better appreciation for the profundities of their business, sponsored a series of religious art exhibits. First was the The Vatican Collections: The Papacy and Art and