SELLING A HEALTH HAZARD : Cigarette Ads Have Gone From False Promises to Obscure Images; Soon They May Just Be Gone for Good

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

When Rob Ramsel was a high school student in Ft. Worth, he and his buddy would sometimes sneak into the restroom and smoke cigarettes. Not just any cigarettes, mind you. Only Benson & Hedges would do. “We liked to mimic the TV commercials,” Ramsel said.

Those commercials--shown nearly 20 years ago--featured smokers who couldn’t quite adapt to the extra-long size of the cigarettes. People who smoked them kept accidentally breaking off the tips, perhaps against a bus window or even on the front door of someone’s house. The ads were always good for a chuckle. But Ramsel isn’t just laughing at Benson & Hedges ads anymore. He’s appearing in them.

As a result, people are now laughing at Ramsel. After all, he’s that guy in the Benson & Hedges print ads shown wearing nothing but his pajama bottoms while standing in front of a roomful of otherwise well-dressed people.

The slogan to the attention-grabbing Benson & Hedges campaign is “For people who like to smoke.” So what, then, if some of the people like to smoke while their pajama bottoms hang below their navels? This scenario has already earned Ramsel the nickname “Jammie Man.”


Ban May Be Close

Lately, however, Jammie Man has had some second thoughts about the ad. Not enough, though, to coax him out of appearing in a second Benson & Hedges advertisement. “I have some friends who will not do tobacco advertising at all. They know what tobacco can do to people,” said Ramsel, who still smokes a pack of Benson & Hedges every day. “But I don’t think I can bear the weight of all that. I’m an actor. I saw it as a chance to do a job. It wasn’t the easiest decision, but it’s not as if I dropped all my morals and said I’d advertise napalm.”

Eventually--some say even within the next five years--Ramsel may no longer have the opportunity to advertise either product. As medical links between cigarettes and an array of health problems continue to mount, there are numerous signs that cigarette advertising is on the decline and that an outright ban on all cigarette advertising in the United States may be just years away.

“We’re at a critical time in the history of the tobacco industry and tobacco advertising,” said David G. Altman, a Stanford University researcher and expert on cigarette marketing. “You now have under 30% of the population smoking. The tobacco companies see the writing on the wall, which is why they’re diversifying. A total ban on advertising and marketing of all tobacco products in the United States isn’t that far off--possibly within the next five years.”


Glamorous Pitchmen

Recently, the pace toward an outright ban seems to have quickened, as court cases test the truthfulness of various claims that tobacco advertisers have made over the years. Experts say health-related issues that some tobacco advertisers downplayed--or even distorted--in the past could prove to be a crushing blow to the future of all cigarette advertising.

Legal challenges are being raised by people who listened to promises of “safe” cigarettes made by cigarette makers through paid “testimonials” by movie stars and physicians. Last month, a six-member jury in Newark, N.J., found that in the 1950s, the Liggett Group, in various advertisements for its Chesterfield and L&M; cigarettes, misled the public to think that its cigarettes were not only safe, but in some cases, beneficial.

Chesterfield ran print advertisements that vowed, “Nose, Throat and Accessory Organs Not Adversely Affected by Smoking Cigarettes.” Meanwhile, several L&M; ads featured glamorous movie stars such as Barbara Stanwyck and Rosalind Russell who claimed that L&M;'s were “just what the doctor ordered.”


Pointing to ads such as these, the federal court jury for the first time found a cigarette company liable in the death of a smoker. The jury ordered Liggett to pay $400,000 in damages to Antonio Cipollone, a retired cable splicer from Little Ferry, N.J. Cipollone’s wife, Rose, smoked both L&M; and Chesterfield cigarettes for years and died of lung cancer at age 58. Although that verdict is on appeal, it still raises the question about how this court decision could affect future cigarette advertising.

In Canada, most tobacco advertising is being banished. Ads on television and radio are banned already. There will be no advertising in newspapers and magazines after Jan. 1, none on signs and billboards by 1991. Sponsorship of events will also be restricted.

Meanwhile, in the United States, eight different congressional bills that would put a lid on tobacco advertising are under consideration, including one under review by a House subcommittee that would completely ban tobacco advertising in this country. For the first time, new figures from the federal government show a substantial drop in cigarette advertising and marketing. And even advertising trade magazines are projecting its rapid demise.

“Looking at what the jury in the Cipollone case decided, we see a verdict that affects the media company and advertising or promotions agency still hooked on cigarette business,” warned Advertising Age in a recent editorial. “Start planning for the day you have to kick the habit.”


Experts say the tobacco companies--most of which have been busy diversifying in recent years--are also preparing for that day. But they’re not giving up without a fight.

Philip Morris, the nation’s biggest cigarette maker, recently launched a print ad campaign that tries to portray smokers as a major economic force. One pro-smoking ad printed in magazines and newspapers nationwide pointed out that the $1 trillion that America’s 55.8 million smokers earn annually in household income “is too much financial power to ignore.”

But in recent years, even Philip Morris has devoted an increased portion of its advertising dollars to subsidiaries such as General Foods and Miller Brewing.

What’s more, for the first time in more than a decade, in 1986 there was a drop in the amount that the six largest domestic cigarette manufacturers spent in total advertising and marketing. The $2.38 billion spent in 1986--the most recent year tracked by the Federal Trade Commission--represented a 3.8% decline compared to the previous year.


“I didn’t believe it when I saw it,” said Judy Wilkenfield, program administrator at the Federal Trade Commission. “I double-checked it and triple-checked it, and the number kept coming up the same. After years and years of increases, this drop is very significant.”

Cigarette manufacturers are not eager to comment on the trend. “The member companies are reluctant to discuss this,” said Brennan Moran, a spokeswoman for the Tobacco Institute, the industry’s Washington-based trade group. “But when I saw those numbers, I asked myself, ‘Gosh, why would that be?’ I don’t have a real good answer.”

The downward trend in cigarette advertising appears to have continued in 1987, according to BAR/LNA Multi-Media Service, a New York research firm that tracks advertising spending in all major media except newspapers. Two giant tobacco companies, RJR Nabisco and Lorillard, posted sizable drops in tobacco-related ad spending last year. In fact, RJR spent nearly $50 million less on tobacco-related advertising in 1987 than in 1986, the research company reports. Statistics for 1988 ad spending spending were not available.

Experts say links between cigarette smoking and a long list of health problems may be the undoing of cigarette advertising. “The tobacco industry is the only industry I know of that requires human sacrifice to endure,” said Emerson Foote, retired founder of the giant Chicago advertising firm Foote, Cone & Belding. “The country will not forever permit it to advertise.”


‘Money to Burn’

Of course, most ad agency executives would argue to the contrary. “I don’t have a crystal ball,” said Kenneth Olshan, chairman of the New York office of Wells, Rich, Greene, the ad firm that created the Benson & Hedges campaign. “But cigarette advertising will continue. It’s a constitutional right.”

In 1971, however, the federal government banned cigarette advertisements from television and radio. Advertisers went racing to alternatives like magazines, newspapers and billboards.

“Cigarette makers not only have the best lawyers,” said Lloyd D. Johnston, program director at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, “they also have the best ad firms--and the money to burn.” No matter where or when cigarette ads appear, marketing experts say, cigarette advertising ranks among the most effective for any product sold to the public.


“We did anything we could to sell cigarettes to young people, to old people, to anyone we could get,” said Foote, whose agency created advertising for the Lucky Strike brand until 1948. “We were always anxious to get more people smoking.”

This, of course, is something the tobacco industry has long denied. The industry claims that the purpose of cigarette advertising isn’t to get more people smoking at all. “It’s brand advertising,” said Moran, media relations director for the Tobacco Institute. “The ads have two purposes, to promote brand loyalty and to get people to switch brands.”

Few executives in the advertising industry are willing to discuss using cigarette ads as a way to target new smokers. “You don’t think anyone will admit to that, do you?” said Gene Cameron, president of the West Coast office of the ad firm BBDO Worldwide. Although his Los Angeles office handles no cigarette advertising, the agency’s New York office creates ads for Kent cigarettes made by Lorillard. “To say we were actually trying to get people to smoke could be the basis of a wrongful death suit.”

But the chairman of one large New York advertising firm insists that the intent of most cigarette advertising is clear. “I know that tobacco companies claim they don’t try to get kids to smoke,” said Robert H. Cherins, chief executive of McCaffrey and McCall. “But I don’t believe it. I think it’s almost criminal to perpetuate that myth.”


As a result, Cherins’ firm, which creates advertisements for such highbrow companies as Mercedes-Benz and Tiffany & Co., refuses to create ads for tobacco products. “I don’t believe we should advertise a product that is responsible for many, many people’s deaths.”

Sports Sponsors

A growing number of magazines and newspapers feel the same way. More than 30 major magazines will not accept tobacco-related advertisements--about twice as many as 10 years ago, according to the American Cancer Society. Among those magazines are Reader’s Digest, Good Housekeeping, the New Yorker and Harvard Business Review. Most large U.S. daily newspapers, however, accept cigarette advertisements, with the exception of the Christian Science Monitor.

Even Virginia Slims’ future as the $16.2-million-a-year sponsor of the women’s professional tennis tour is on the ropes. Philip Morris Co., which makes Virginia Slims, says it expects to continue as sponsor. But, under pressure from anti-smoking groups, the Women’s International Professional Tennis Council is searching for a new sponsor.


“It may set a precedent,” said Jacques Pernitz, managing editor of the trade publication, Sports Marketing News. “If Virginia Slims loses this, other tobacco companies could be dropped as sporting event sponsors.” RJR Nabisco, for example, has been using its Camel brand to sponsor everything from auto races to soccer tournaments.

Sponsoring athletic events is a far cry from some of the more outlandish marketing methods of years past. Perhaps the most provocative form of cigarette advertising over the years has been the relationship some ads have drawn between smoking and health benefits. Virtually every cigarette maker jumped on this bandwagon at one time or another. But the cigarette industry is just beginning to pay the price for the public’s long memory of these earlier ads.

In the 1940s, one ad for Camel cigarettes even featured a 5-year-old girl boasting to her family doctor, “I’m going to grow a hundred years old.” Although the little girl wasn’t a cigarette smoker, her doctor certainly was. And the ad pointed out that three independent surveys revealed that more doctors smoked Camels than any other brand.

Today, doctors are no longer vouching for cigarettes in advertisements. Camel cigarettes are a perfect example of that. In 1947, an R. J. Reynolds print advertisement for Camels stated that “more doctors smoke Camel than any other cigarette.” Camel isn’t running any such claims today.


Convenience Touted

In one of Camel’s more recent print ad campaigns--celebrating its 75th birthday--the manufacturer used a play on words to promote the brand--"Camel, 75 years and still smokin’.” The advertisements show a goofy-looking camel--that resembles the TV character Alf--with a cigarette hanging out of its mouth.

But back in the early 1920s camels with silly smirks couldn’t sell cigarettes. Convenience, however, could. One of the biggest problems that cigarette makers faced then was simply getting men to put down their pipes and cigars and, instead, light up cigarettes.

During much of World War I, cigarettes were simply advertised as being more convenient to light up in the trenches than say, pipes. But American Tobacco Co., the maker of Lucky Strikes, changed all that in 1928 when it actually paid a war hero $1,000 to promote its brand. In a print ad, the captain of a ship that had just returned from a dramatic rescue-at-sea mission gave some credit to his Lucky Strikes. Captain George Fried of the U.S.S. America claimed that Lucky Strikes helped him to maintain “nerve control” during the mission.


During this same period, cigarette makers tried to subtly persuade women to light up. In 1926, Chesterfield was the first to indirectly advertise to women with a poster that showed a man and woman sitting on a bluff above the ocean. While the man lights up his cigarette, the woman asks, “Blow some (smoke) my way.”

“Tobacco companies tip-toed ever-so-carefully into getting women to smoke,” said Roland Marchand, advertising historian and chairman of the Department of History at the University of California, Davis. “They knew women were out there smoking, but they couldn’t speak to them directly.”

All that changed in the late 1920s and 1930s when Lucky Strike ads began to touch the heartstrings of many women with promises of weight loss. “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet,” the ads said.

But cigarette makers quickly discovered that some smokers had more pressing concerns than weight loss. Some who were developing coughs and sore throats were relating that to their cigarettes. Lucky Strike responded with an ad saying, “20,679 physicians say that Luckies are less irritating to your throat.”


‘Best for You’

For a while, physicians were replaced by glamorous movie stars who made the same promises. In the 1940s, L&M; paid movie stars such as Rosalind Russell and Barbara Stanwyck to hype their brands. In a print ad, Stanwyck and Russell both said, “L&M;'s filters are just what the doctor ordered.” In ads for Philip Morris, Lucille Ball and her husband, Desi Arnaz, promised “no cigarette hangover.”

Actor Henry Fonda was paid to promote Camel cigarettes and say that he knew of “not one single case of throat irritation due to smoking Camels.” And Dragnet’s Jack Webb vowed that he smoked two packs of Chesterfields every day because “Chesterfield is best for you.”

But in 1952, an article in Reader’s Digest warned of a connection between smoking and cancer. Shortly after that article appeared, cigarette sales started to fall. “That’s when the cigarette health claims became more outrageous than ever,” said Joe Tye, an anti-smoking advocate and chief operating officer of the Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Mass.


A Kent ad for its cigarette with the Micronite filter, claimed “No medical evidence or scientific endorsement has proven any other cigarette to be superior to Kent.”

By 1954, the FTC began to question many of the industry’s advertised health claims. Quickly, the ads toned down. Instead of talking about health, many advertisers decided to talk instead about less tangible things. The Marlboro man--and numerous imitators--rode into town in the mid-1950s and rode off with the loyalty of millions of cigarette smokers.

Still, the more subdued health claims continued well into the 1960s. And after the surgeon general’s report in 1964 drew a link between cancer and smoking, the industry responded with so-called low-tar and low-nicotine cigarettes--not to mention an assortment of filters that were said to guard smokers from harmful elements of cigarette smoke.

By 1977, nearly half of the cigarette ads claimed that the brands advertised were low in tar or nicotine. “Everyone started advertising the filters on their cigarettes as high-tech devices that would remove dangerous elements,” said Kenneth Warner, a researcher and department chairman at the School of Public Health at University of Michigan.


Along came Lark, for example, with a new marketing gimmick--a so-called “gas trap” filter. Lark started an ad campaign warning that the biggest dangers weren’t in tar or nicotine at all. Lark even quoted an American Medical Assn. researcher who warned that cigarette gases “may be a bigger problem than tar and nicotine.”

Even the names of cigarettes began to take on a ring of safety. In 1978, a brand called Fact placed an ad in Popular Science magazine that mentioned so-called smoke scrubbers that blocked some harmful elements. And another low-tar brand, True, ran an advertisement showing a golfer smoking in the locker room while explaining: “I’d heard enough to make me decide one of two things: quit or smoke True. I smoke True.”

Today many of the health claims have been expunged. “If you smoke, please try Carlton,” begs one print ad. “That is one of the few cigarette ads that is not blatantly trying to get new people to smoke,” said Dr. Joyce Brothers, the psychologist and author who has studied the subliminal effects of advertising. “In most cigarette advertising there is this constant subliminal message that cigarette smoking is part of a good time. You know, when you have a good time, you smoke; and when you smoke, you have a good time.”