Philip Morris: How Virginia Slims Targeted Women to Sell Cigarettes

1973, Virginia Slims Cigarette Advertisement

Advertisements not only sell products to consumers but also to sell a set of material values like economic security and success to the buyer. As Jean Kilbourne said, “ads do sell products, but they also sell a great deal more than products. They sell values… images… concepts of love and sexuality, of romance… success…popularity, and perhaps most important of normalcy. To a very great extent, they tell us who we are and who we should be” (Kilbourne). A 1973 Philip Morris advertisement of their new brand, Virginia Slims, depicts a beautiful, lean woman who smiles while holding a cigarette with the caption “you’ve come a long way, baby” (Virginia Slims), being the slogan of Virginia Slims. The ads in this campaign contain anecdotes of early 20th century women. These anecdotes typically follow a pattern of husbands or other men punishing women for smoking. They equate women smoking with events such as women’s suffrage to capitalize on equal rights for women. Upon further analysis of the advertisement, Virginia Slims targets a female market to sell not only cigarettes but also the emotional and psychological needs of women with society’s ideals of women’s outward appearance and female equality.

1968, Virginia Slims Cigarette Advertisement

With the launch of Virginia Slims, “Philip Morris decided to appeal to modern women with the development of a new brand. Spurning strategies based on the traditional feminine imagery” (O’Keefe and Pollay). One writer’s analysis states that the advertisement holds themes of “slimness, attractiveness, glamour, style, taste, and a contrast to men’s cigarettes” (Douglass). The Virginia Slims advertisement directed at women makes a statement of what it means to be a woman in American Culture, the most important being a woman’s outward appearance. The ad depicts a skinny woman holding a Virginia Slims cigarette, which perpetuates sexism by holding women to an unattainable standard of physical appearance. The advertisement states that these cigarettes are “slimmer than the fat cigarettes men smoke,” holding women to the idea that females should be smaller, more delicate, and petite than men. In the Virginia Slims advertisements, Philip Morris typically portrays the average American woman as a fashionable individual, referring to the slimness of the female’s figure. The advertising team of Philip Morris tasked with marketing to women described “the brand as ‘the first cigarette for women only,… designed slimmer for a woman’s slimmer hands and lips; designed with the kind of flavor women like, and packaged in a slim purse pack’” (Centers for Disease Control). The entire concept of Philip Morris’s advertising lies in sexist stereotypes of women.

1971, Virginia Slims Cigarette Advertisement

Furthermore, the advertisement perpetuates the idea that smoking this cigarette will not only make one skinny but also give happiness, which comes from one’s outward appearance, that being “slim” and fashion-forward. Philip Morris deliberately chose to dress their models in fashionable clothing; the company “placed an ad in Women’s Wear Daily to thank the fashion trade for providing designs for its 1973 Virginia Slims campaign” (Centers for Disease Control). By emphasizing fashion in their advertisements, Philip Morris only furthers the female stereotypes that women care mainly about their outward appearance concerning the slimness of their physique and outerwear. This is dangerous for women’s psychological health, as only five percent of women have this body type that is “acceptable” (Killing Us Softly). The characteristics of this body type are thinness, small breasts, a flat stomach, and skinny legs (Killing Us Softly). Jean Kilbourne states that “girls exposed to sexualized images from a young age are more prone to three of the most mental health problems for girls and women: depression, eating disorders, and low self-esteem” (Killing Us Softly). The advertising of Virginia Slims exposes girls to these images as the “brand portrays a subliminal, indirect message that Virginia Slims cigarettes will result in its smokers obtaining or maintaining a slim figure” (O’Keefe and Pollay). The depiction of this woman holding Virginia Slims holds many similarities to a fashion magazine advertisement, only creating more of a “toxic cultural environment” (Killing Us Softly) that so many advertisements create, surrounding women with unhealthy images of normalcy.

1971, Virginia Slims Cigarette Advertisement

The young woman’s appearance on the cover of the advertisement with the mention of “baby,” being a term of endearment, subtly points to sex. Urban Dictionary, a dictionary for slang words and phrases, defines “baby” as a “the direct consequence of sexual intercourse” (Urban Dictionary), “Used by people having sexual intercourse with one another” (Urban Dictionary), and “what [one] would call [one’s] boyfriend/girlfriend” (Urban Dictionary). In American advertisements, sex and sexuality only belong to the young and beautiful. Virginia Slims insinuates the idea that smoking their cigarettes is a sign of youth, beauty, and ultimately sex and relationships. The advertisement establishes the presentation of this woman in a cliché way as liberating. The ad’s undertones of female liberation mixed with the sexualization of cigarettes through the woman’s promotion of the brand conflate smoking with sex. While “the inclusion of the word “baby” in the slogan resulted in some criticism from feminists” (Centers for Disease Control), Philip Morris chose to continue using the slogan.

1970, Virginia Slims Cigarettes Advertisement

In addition to the advertisement’s themes of “slimness, attractiveness, glamour” (Douglass), the writer Douglass’s analysis also states that there are also themes of “independence, liberation” (Douglass), and feminism. Philip Morris used the Virginia Slims slogan ‘You’ve come a long way, baby’ “and ran copy that contrasted women’s historical lack of rights with the modern situation in which women could have everything, even ‘a cigarette brand for [their] very own’” (Centers for Disease Control). In their advertisements, Philip Morris was “adept at understanding, predicting, and capitalizing on the feminist movement by seizing the symbols of feminism and equation women’s liberation with smoking” (O’Keefe and Pollay).

1968, Virginia Slims Cigarettes Advertisement

The Virginia Slims campaign often shared anecdotes of women in the early 20th century lacking in equal rights to men concerning smoking. In this particular ad, there is an image of a woman walking out of her house holding suitcases while her husband stands behind her with the caption “it took Marjorie Taylor 25 years to get up the courage to smoke in front of her husband. It took Mr. Taylor 25 seconds to pack his wife’s bags” (Virginia Slims). The advertisement’s feminist tone gives women the idea that smoking is an act of female liberation and equality. With society allowing women to smoke after the second wave of feminism, smoking gives a sense of belonging to the feminist movement and equality to men. Philip Morris’ Virginia Slim advertisements send a message of “women’s freedom in society by using cigarette[s] as a phallic symbol of strength” (Douglass). The Virginia Slims advertisements “offer visuals that suggest needs satisfaction, and only be association do they introduce the brand of cigarettes as the means of satisfying needs” (Anderson). The advertisement associates smoking Virginia Slims with the feminist movement, targeting the emotional needs of women to feel equal to men and a sense of belonging to a group for female liberation.

Philip Morris’s brand Virginia Slims directly markets to female consumers. Philip Morris identified “a female market niche, the feminist values of individuals in that niche, and the stimuli to which they respond as they attempt to fill their needs” (Anderson). The company sells the ideal female image along with their cigarettes. The presentation of a fashion-forward, beautiful model is meant to target all women through the model’s embodiment of female stereotypes. Furthermore, to sell Virginia Slims, Philip Morris determined “consumers’ interpersonal concerns and what images will promote the desired self-enhancement” (Anderson), that image being a model with the ideal body type accepted in society, which is unattainable to the majority of American women. Philip Morris alludes that smoking Virginia Slims aids one in achieving this physique. In addition to targeting all females, Philip Morris markets Virginia Slims as a brand for women only, giving women a sense of “equality, exclusivity, and liberation (Anderson). The Virginia Slims brand targets the psychological need of women to feel socially acceptable. Philip Morris presents their cigarettes as a feminist action for female equality and liberation, targeting a subgroup of their female consumers. Philip Morris urges an array of female consumers to purchase Virginia Slims as a way to satisfy their psychological and emotional needs. The company’s advertising techniques perpetuate sexism while selling a false narrative of social acceptance and liberation, with their only goal being a broader consumer market that will become addicted to their product.

Works Cited

Anderson, S. J., et al. “Emotions for Sale: Cigarette Advertising and Women’s Psychosocial Needs.” Tobacco Control, vol. 14, no. 2, 2005, pp. 127–35, www.jstor.org/stable/20747788.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (US), The National Center for Biotechnology Information. Women and Smoke: A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta, Georgia, Government Publishing Office, Mar. 2001. Virginia Slims: A Case Study in Marketing Success. National Center for Biotechnology Information, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK44302/box/A11958/?report=objectonly.

Douglass, L. C. “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.” Histories of Things to Come, 14 Feb. 10`4, historiesofthingstocome.blogspot.com/2015/02/youve-come-long-way-baby.html.

Killing Us Softly 4: Advertising’s Image of Women. Directed by Sut Jhally and Jean Kilbourne, Media Education Foundation, 2010. Kanopy, uga.kanopy.com/video/killing-us-softly.

O’Keefe, Anne Marie, and Richard W. Pollay. “Deadly Targeting of Women in Promoting Cigarettes.” Deadly Targeting of Women in Promoting Cigarettes. Columbia.edu, www.columbia.edu/itc/hs/pubhealth/p9740/readings/okeefe.pdf. Originally published in Journal of American Medical Women’s Association, 67–69 ser., vol. 51, nos. 1–2, January/April 1996.

Urban Dictionary. 2003, www.urbandictionary.com.