Tobacco companies long ago mastered the art of innovation in advertising to sell their deadly and addictive products. For example, sports trading cards, which were extremely popular with teenagers, were included with a pack of cigarettes in the early 1900s. Today, Big Tobacco may be working to have their cigarettes placed in popular video games. In other instances, they employ viral marketing firms to help them create a “buzz” about a product.
But perhaps the most successful advertising by tobacco companies happens on the silver screen, where product placement and smoking scenes in popular films often reach an audience of hundreds of millions of youth worldwide. Indeed, as the World Health Organization (WHO) noted in 2009, “movies reach every corner of the world.”1 While youth are the primary target of smoking images, such images also help reinforce the idea that smoking is a societal norm, which is relevant to both youth and adult smoking.
Cigarettes were glamourized on-screen as early as the 1940s (see film Now, Voyager from 1942), and the off-screen association between cigarettes and movie stars goes back many decades (see Chesterfield ads below).
Film directors and script writers portray movie stars lighting up to imply a variety of desirable traits, such as being rebellious and cool. Cigarette placement in movies creates a desired association between the sex appeal and charisma of the star who is smoking and the cigarette being smoked.
As the website magazine Slate recently reported in a video slideshow chronicling smoking in the movies, over time cigarettes became a versatile form of shorthand for movie makers, “underscoring the venality of outlaws as often as it highlighted the masculinity of heroes.”2
These depictions impress on young minds the idea that if one wants to be popular and successful like the movie stars themselves or the characters they portray, smoking cigarettes can help one achieve those goals. The value of this marketing cannot be overstated.
“Portrayals of smoking in movies promote the same themes as other tobacco advertising: rebellion, independence, sexiness, wealth, power and celebration.”3
Examples of tobacco companies paying to have their products placed in films are numerous. In one infamous pay-off in 1983, Brown and Williamson paid US $500,000 to Sylvester Stallone to smoke its cigarettes in five films, including Rambo. At the time, Brown & Williamson was owned by British American Tobacco, the parent of Canada’s Imperial Tobacco. According to leaked internal company papers, Philip Morris also supplied cigarettes to many films in the 1970s and 1980s, including the popular PG-rated films Grease and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and the G-rated film The Muppet Movie.
Tobacco companies “voluntarily” agreed to stop product placement in movies in 1989. As with most voluntary agreements with the tobacco industry, it did not work. So in 1998, the Master Settlement Agreement outlawed tobacco companies in the U.S. from paying to have their products placed in films.