Cigarettes, grammar, failed marketing, and everything.

Back in the day, tobacco companies could advertise, and advertise they did. Everywhere. Subways, buses, magazines, radio, television, courtesy packs on airplanes, you name it. The more powerful ads drove the more powerful brands. The Marlboro man was everywhere:

Rugged, strong, and healthy – notice the absence of the Surgeon General’s warning on this example from the 60’s.

But in those days, tobacco execs would go on national television and swear that tobacco wasn’t harmful, even to pregnant women (many of whom actually preferred smaller babies)…

… which babies were also used to hawk tobacco products.

Of course, now we know more than we did then:

But this is now, and that was then.

Two of the more popular cigarette campaigns actually capitalized on bad grammar:

This slogan was routinely held up by prescriptive grammarians as an example of abominable usage: “like,” they said, is a preposition governing nouns and noun phrases, and should never be used as a conjunction introducing an adverbial clause. “Winston tastes good as a cigarette should,” intoned the English teachers, was the only acceptable form. Naturally, the ad execs picked up on the furor and capitalized on it:

Not to be left out of the action, MAD magazine put this on the back of their January 1971 issue, which shows that many folks were quite aware of the dangers of smoking, thank you, even while the Tobacco execs were perjuring themselves on the national scene.

In fact, “In December 1952 [Reader’s Digest] published “Cancer by the Carton“, a series of articles that linked smoking with lung cancer. This first brought the dangers of smoking to public attention which, up to then, had ignored the health threats.” (Wikipedia) An interesting article summarizing the history of tobacco and health concerns can be found at CNN Interactive.

Popular stars shilled for tobacco on a regular basis – it seems so bizarre to watch Granny Clampett and Jane Hathaway discussing the merits of Winston, but it’s amusing to see how they worked the grammar issue in at the end in a Madison Avenue “double whammy”.

The Flintstones got into the act as well:

I confess with some shame that tobacco contributed to putting bread in my mouth for some time; mother functioned as a spokeswoman for Camel cigarettes for a year.

But when it came to using bad grammar, Winston was hardly the only offender – Tareyton’s campaign confused nominative and oblique to good effect in their highly successful slogan, “Us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch.”[1]

Despite the peccadillo – it seems that cigarette ads thrived on controversy – this particular advertising campaign was wildly successful in the 60’s, and pushed Tareyton’s popularity close to the top of the charts.

But not all products, even those from the makers of successful brands, were an instant hit.

Back in 1966, when I was 15, I was on one of my semi-regular visits to my mom’s brother in Salt Lake. We took a trip up to Idaho to see some additional relatives, and I remember spending some time in a tobacco warehouse, helping to run cartons of cigarettes through the tax-stamp machine. (Had the government gotten wind of our little diversion, the owner could have been shut down, but oversight was lax and attorneys less numerous in those days.) While I was working there that day, I noticed something unusual – a carton of Tennyson cigarettes, which I had never before heard of.

Now, the more astute among my readers will be asking themselves, “What does a 15-year-old know from tobacco?” As it happens, even at that tender age I was somewhat of a tobacco connoisseur. I had started smoking in high school, finding that it was a gateway to a certain level of acceptance, for as little as that was worth. And I parlayed my small bit of social coin into a minor fortune by becoming a user of odd and revolting brands.2 (In Connecticut, the legal age for tobacco was 16, but even before that I had no end of “friends” who would procure for me in exchange for a small consideration.)

Strong and with a different flavor than American standards.

Oval cigarettes. Cute gimmick, but nothing special otherwise.

Absolutely foul. If I had these, I was guaranteed nobody would bum off me.

Tasted just about like smoking a cow pie. Or so I imagine.

Had kind of a fruity taste, unlike anything else I had ever smoked. Meh. However, Lark’s claim to fame was their commercial, the 1960’s version of Google Street View – the Lark truck would run around different places with a TV camera on the back, blaring the William Tell Overture, and asking people, “Show Us Your Lark Pack!” I saw this truck run down 1st Avenue in Manhattan one day; even if I had had a pack of Larks on me, I decided that discretion would have been the better part of fame, since I was still underage in New York.

[Edit: I had a copy of the commercial in question here, which I had posted at YouTube. Even though it was listed as public domain under a Creative Commons license, it appears that the brand is still owned by Trademarks LLC. The video was removed at YouTube, but for some odd reason still played here. In light of some communication with the above-mentioned company, I have removed the video. Unless it is taken down elsewhere, however, you can still see it here (3rd one on the list).

Now, since we’re on the subject of advertising in general as well, I nominate Salem cigarettes for the most insidious commercial ever devised. As a linguist who has studied close to 20 languages over the course of my life (although I don’t claim to speak them all), I can tell you that anything you produce will remain in your memory much longer than anything you hear. When learning a language, speaking is much more powerful than listening; they are different skills, yes, but the first cements things in your memory a lot longer than just hearing them, even multiple times. The following ad is much like getting up at 3:00 AM in the home of a musician, and playing only the first five notes of “Shave and a haircut” on the grand piano. It’s a guarantee that an irritated and foggy victim will stumble down the stairs to finish the “two bits” part before being able to go back to sleep.[3]

Unfortunately, despite these commercials being ancient, many of them have been taken down on copyright grounds. But go here and advance to 6:40, and you’ll get one of the ads that I’m referring to. Unless you are some kind of superhuman being, you will finish the line, and you will sing the brand name in your head. There is no escape.

There were others. I knew every brand on the market, and some that weren’t. I even rolled my own for a while, although not very skillfully, but when I couldn’t get these, I’d smoke anything I could get my hands on. My mother smoked Carltons (why bother, I wondered?) and when I’d cadge hers, I ripped the filter off; ultimately I settled on Luckies as my brand of choice. And of course, in the process, I became a 3-pack-a-day man by the time I was 18. The end of that story is that I quit, cold turkey, that year and never looked back – but my lungs paid a lifetime price.

So that brings us back to Tennyson, and by now I think you’ll understand why it caught my eye. A brand I didn’t know about? Intriguing! But in those days, there was no Internet, and such arcane knowledge was not to be found anywhere. Only later, thanks to the miracle of the Intertubez, was I able to dig up a bit of history, but even today what’s out there is pretty sparse.

In 1966, Tennyson launched a fairly comprehensive media blitz to publicize their new brand. I’m not sure why Tareyton simply didn’t choose to introduce a menthol version of their already-famous brand.[4]

I even remember the jingle. I began to wonder later if I had imagined it, but fortunately the original sheet music which was submitted to the legal process was conserved:


So I’m not senile after all. I may be crazy, but that’s different. As a final bit of curiosity, I also found this:

Same package, same font, same look as Tareyton – but nary a whit of information to be found about what these are, or when or where they were sold. Possibly a European version of Tareyton? One clue:

This has been a bit of a ramble, but I got a good bunch of things out that I won’t have to worry about later (‘Now where did I archive that?’)

The Old Wolf has rambled.

1 In case you’re wondering, it should be “We Tareyton smokers.”

2 Plus ça change, plus ça reste la même chose. Visit The Old Wolf’s Banquet from Hell.

3 Brooke McEldowney, both a very gifted musician and a supremely talented artist who does the webcomics 9 Chickweed Lane and Pibgorn, riffed on this twice. In the first one, Edda and her mother Juliette engaged in this very exercise here; the second, where poor Seth is tormented by his ballet company, is here.

4 As it happens, such a thing exists, even though I only found out about it later as I was researching the topic. Never once did I see these in stores.

14 responses to “Cigarettes, grammar, failed marketing, and everything.

  1. Good lordy, Christopher, how you do go on! Love it. But you forgot something along the way. Tobacco companies were MAJOR advertisers in the American Medical Association Journal and doctor-based ads were a huge influence. Google that stuff and you’ll find galleries of doctor-endorsing cigarette ads.

  2. Recently in London the local Borough’s were running guided tours of the disused underground stations, some of which have not been accessed in over 40 years! It was so interested see the amount of advertising that was on the walls for cigarettes. So strange.

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  6. School kids would often play off of advertising jingles and theme songs. I remember we used to sing this version of the Winston jingle in grade school in the 1960s:

    Winston taste bad
    Like the one I just had.
    No flavor, no taste
    Just a thirty cent waste.

    That’s right, 30¢ for a box of 20 cigarettes. Later they went to 40¢, and then 50¢ a box in vending machines.

    • Haha, great jingle! Ours were 33¢ when I was a smoker in the 60s. Looking at prices today, I’m glad I quit after only a few years. My lungs paid a price anyway, but I’m still alive and kicking.

      Remember vending machines that used to sell packs of cigarettes with 2¢ wrapped up inside, as change? Then, of course, all that good stuff you could get “free for Raleigh coupons!”

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