How Much Would You Smoke for a Free Jeep?
No seriously, how much? It sounds like a joke but, for the longest time, it wasn’t.
I could fill a hundred pages with the inappropriate ads that have been written by cigarette companies.
We can give a partial hall pass on some of them. We’ll chalk it up to a lack of science.
But some of the ads are just, “C’mon…”:
Candidly, the hardest part writing this article was staying focused: there’s such an abundance of nutty cigarette material; it’s this entire weird ecosystem.
For example, there’s even an entire community of people that are obsessed with cigarette memorabilia:
Such as Mark the Marlboro Merch Collector, who scours the internet cig swag. Is it me or does simply looking at that Marlboro merch make me sense the smell of cigs?
What stood out most was the incentive programs. They still exist, but they were over the top back in the day.
It’s important to remember that, at one point, cigarette advertising was as pervasive as cell phone and car commercials. In fact, it was so competitive that it became too costly for nicotine companies to go blow for blow against each other.
Marketing teams began new schemes that included catalogs with point systems. Raleigh cigarettes, for example, had this one, with your typical mid-1960’s cover illustration:
The inside is what really caught my eye. It’s like any mail-order catalog, except you had to earn points by purchasing cigarettes. Have a gander, here’s the children’s section:
Now, note how it says the number of coupons. Guess how many coupons you get per cigarette pack?
Just a single measly coupon. You’d need to smoke 825 packs for a set of children’s books. Your kid will appreciate it until you explain why daddy has to die soon. An average heavy smoker would literally have to save coupons from years of smoking to buy a mere cooking pan.
The crazy thing? Cigarette companies said they were doing their customers a favor by passing savings back that they’d have otherwise spent on advertising. They even offered a cash-back rebate of .75 cents (as in, less than a penny) per cigarette pack smoked. Smoke one thousand packs (20,000 cigarettes) get a cash rebate of $7.50!
Don’t worry, you’ll pay that $7.50 back, in other ways.
Here’s one more, the kitchen section:
That Delux 2-slicer (product E)? All you’d need to do is smoke two packs a day for about a year and a half. And boom, you are in there.
One truth of advertising will always exist: companies are copycats.
After the first cigarette company released a catalog, a torrent of catalogs and point systems were followed. Some had entire vehicles you could buy. But you would need a stadium of people to smoke cigarettes all day and donate their coupons to you.
The famous 1964 Surgeon General’s report stated the obvious, “Cigarettes are very bad.” The industry saw a 1% customer decline for the following 30 years.
Each 1% was worth more than $100 million so companies got desperate and eventually released more generous catalogs. Camel had their own called, “Camel Cash,” featuring cool camels playing in a band, where you exchanged C-Notes which earned you one point with each pack:
This, despite its generosity, still left you with the fact that you had to smoke 1,250 packs to have a VCR.
Marlboro had the Marlboro Miles, which had all sorts of outdoor swag:
“When the dust settles (in your lungs) this is the gear that got you there.” It would be funny if they did a more honest catalog, where after a million Marlboro Miles, you got some type of black lung trophy — but I digress.
Stepping back, it’s crazy that they’ve paired a reward system that incentivizes you to get hurt your body for rewards. Imagine if there was a catalog that rewarded obesity. Although, there was that webcam lady who was getting paid by male viewers to binge eat and reach 1,000 lbs. But that digression in human evolution is for another article.
I love studying vintage advertising because, even in its most extreme, it’s an index of a culture’s sensibilities and norms. In many cases, it’s seems utterly devoid of morality. Cigarette companies long knew that smoking was terrible for you. In fact, their lobbying is responsible for delaying the 1964 Surgeon General’s report that finally got masses to quit.
But they’ve still made it their point to get you hooked and get you hooked when you’re young.
I hope there doesn’t come a day where we look back mournfully at what we have accepted as normal today.
And lastly, please quit smoking. There’s never going to come a day where you say, “Man, I wish I’d smoked a bit longer.”
The Marlboro Man himself (Robert Norris) didn’t even smoke. He ended up living to 90 as a result.
Best of luck.