The Marlboro Man, everyone’s favorite cigarette-selling American cowboy, appears to have fallen off of his high horse. He’s just not as hip as he used to be: His image shifts from iconic bad boy to ironic object of ridicule in “Selling Smoke: Tobacco Advertising and Anti-smoking Campaigns” at the Harvey Cushing library. The Medical School exhibit chronicles the sociocultural phenomenon of cigarette smoking through advertisements, photographs, articles and public service announcements from the William Van Duyn collection.
Upon entrance into the exhibit, visitors are greeted by pictures of two cowboys atop their steed — a scene reminiscent of the American West and its fictional inhabitant, “The Marlboro Man.” The sun sets behind thin clouds in each landscape, rendering the background sky a blood red-orange. In stark white lettering, somber remarks for such peaceful scenes cut across the center of each image. “Bob, j’ai le cancer;” “I miss my lung, Bob,” a cowboy laments. Both pictures are from the California Department of Health services, and are presented in a series of anti-smoking advertisements from around the world.
The style of the other PSAs varied widely, and depicted the evils of tobacco threatening everything from motherhood to athletic success. The broad range of people and activities shown in the service announcements illustrates the popularity of smoking in the past, and also the efficacy of the effort to “stamp out smoking.” At least around Yale, cigarette smoking is no longer kosher — “designated smoking areas” are fewer and farther between. You can no longer smoke on airplanes or in restaurants, and health concerns now seem to trump the “coolness” factor once associated with cigarettes.
But the question of how, when and why something is deemed fashionable often lies in the hands of two groups with whom I feel sufficiently acquainted — the “advertisers” and the “youth”. “What are the cool kids up to these days? How can we manufacture cool?” I imagine the former group pondering. At the same time, young people and their consumer habits largely dictate the question of when something “normal”, or deeply ingrained in everyday life, is no longer trendy or healthy.
So, as I stood looking at the then-common advertisements of the 1960s and 70s, I wondered what modes of advertising our society churns out today that will be taboo in the future. I thought of my run to Durfee’s earlier that day, and of an image on the side of a “Chia Star” beverage that stuck with me — “60 Skinny Calories.” And thank goodness for that label! I definitely wouldn’t want to go around drinking drinks with 60 “average” or 60 “fat” calories! “Selling Smoke” reveals that our advertisement techniques haven’t changed so much, just the products.
Ads throughout the exhibit focused on taste (milder! richer! better!), production (100% pure tobacco!) and setting (share a pack with friends!) — all focuses of food advertising today, giving the exhibit contemporary relevance.
In an American Cancer society PSA titled “Do You Believe This?” a Mike Doonesbury cartoon depicts his nightmare of “creating an ad to help sell cigarettes.” Doonesbury dreams that an animated cigarette, Mr. Butts, talks to teenagers to convince them that smoking is normal among teens, and harmless to your health. In this scenario, it’s nightmarish for Doonesbury to think that he could partake in the manufacturing of such a destructive social practice.
Pieces such as this contribute to the exhibit’s focus on the social element of advertising. The use of a variety of media — from a television flashing ads to antique smoking paraphernalia — helps the audience consume a bit of smoking culture, if just for a few minutes. The pieces in the collection are diverse and provide food for thought; in the words of a Chesterfield advertising slogan, “they satisfy!”
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