Vintage Ads: Selling Cigarettes with Sex

Tobacco companies have been using pictures of scantily clad women to sell their product since the 1880s, though what qualifies as “scantily clad” has changed.


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Sex sells. Desirable women, rugged men, and suggestive slogans have all been a part of advertising for more than a century. This collection of vintage cigarette ads reveals some of the ways tobacco companies used sexual themes and risqué imagery to sell cigarettes.

The tobacco industry began using such tactics in the 1880s when they began printing pictures of women in costumes on the piece of cardstock used to hold the shape of the cigarette pack — a precursor to baseball cards.

Model wearing a corset in an ad for cigarettes
W. Duke, Sons & Co. trading card from the 1880s.

Duke, Sons & Co. was the leading cigarette brand in the 1880s and early 1900s. The cardstock images they included in their packages became collectors’ items.

Penguin smoking a cigarette with a naked women in their bedroom.
KOOL menthol cigarettes used a cartoon penguin mascot for 30 years, starting in the early 1930s, but we bet that the penguin wasn’t what readers noticed in this 1936 ad.
Woman in winter clothing
In this 1939 ad, who is “worth hooking up with”? Betty Petty or Old Gold cigarettes? (Click to Enlarge)

Headlines in tobacco ads were often double entendres, inviting readers to decide whether they were talking about their product or the person pictured in the ad.

A young women in a cowboy hat, boots, and skirt in a cigarette ad
In 1939, Old Gold offered to send smokers a full-color, ad-free print of Betty Petty for 10 cents. (Click to Enlarge)
Young woman playing tennis in a cigarette ad
In 1940, Betty Petty became a redhead. (Click to Enlarge)
Woman models in a cigarette ad wearing a
This 1940 cigarette ad is an egg-cellent example of using sex appeal to sell. (Click to Enlarge)

Tobacco companies often chose attractive women to star in their ads to attract the male audience. Although sexual references primarily targeted men, they also lured women.

Woman skiier on a snow covered slope, in an ad for Chesterfield cigarettes
An attractive woman on a carton of cigarettes was marketed as a great Christmas gift in 1940. (Click to Enlarge)

According to studies done in 2007 by Stanford Research into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising (SRITA), women were manipulated to believe that if they smoked cigarettes, they would be sexier and more attractive to men.

Woman with a lit cigarette
In 1950, Old Gold claimed their cigarettes were a “treat” and that they didn’t cause health complications. (Click to Enlarge)

SRITA also found that if tobacco companies used slim women with fashionable clothes, women would be enticed to smoke.

Cheerleader in mid-cheer, in an ad for Lucky Strike cigarettes
Lucky Strike was one of the first tobacco companies to market directly to women, as in this ad from 1950. (Click to Enlarge)

Research shows that sexual imagery tends to grab consumers’ attention more quickly than a non-sexual ad and holds their attention longer. A study done by the University of Georgia (UGA) concluded that sex really does sell.

Woman putting on a red coat, in an ad for Philip Morris cigarettes
A rather seductive ad for 1955. (Click to Enlarge)

A UGA researcher explains that “people succumb to the ‘buy this, get this’ imagery used in ads.” They subconsciously believe that buying the product will make them as attractive as the people portrayed in the ads.

So what exactly were tobacco companies selling? An image, a fantasy, sex. And maybe a cigarette or two.

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  1. I REALLY hate cigarettes with a passion Ms. Padilla, but do love this feature. That doesn’t make me a hypocrite, it just means I’m ad savvy. Alrighty then, I love the artwork for the 1936 KOOL ad. Risque for 82 years ago, the nudity would cause today’s uptight-about-everything Americans to do what they do best: freak out!

    The penguin was a good distraction in the ad. Perhaps he’s why it got past the censors. If anyone else here loves ’80s advertising, check out the ‘I Wanna Pop’ Shasta TV commercials from 1983. One of them features penguins as only a 1983 era ad could!

    Old Gold paid Petty plenty to feature women with nice racks, but not go too far. The more sophisticated 1950 ad not only featured a beautiful woman, but showed her holding the lit cigarette AND the smoke itself. The Lucky Strike ad from the same year just looks goofy to me, sorry.

    The bottom one from ’55 kind of looked like ‘Butterfield 8’ five years early. Pardon us as we change our packaging to be colorful and stand out a lot more, so we’ll catch your eye to buy OUR cancer sticks that much faster. Oh, but don’t worry, as the main sponsor of ‘I Love Lucy’ you’ll be hearing all about it on TV as well!


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