Fake News

Cigarettes: Advertising, Fake News and Fighting Science

Cigarettes were a great American success story. From earliest times tobacco was grown on the North American continent and was important to both indigenous people and the European settlers. The industrial revolution and automation made the cigarette the preferred method for consuming nicotine, with sales of pre-rolled cigarettes replacing loose tobacco sales.. While in the 19th century there were some social taboos around smoking, especially for women,World War I helped to make cigarettes a more accepted part of life in the United States.

With the emergence of print media in the early 20th century, cigarette manufacturers embraced advertising as a way to increase their sales: first in print media and later on television. But the story of how cigarettes were sold to the public is not just a story of advertising; the industry enthusiastically adopted more subtle ways to encourage smoking. Working in tandem with the early public relations guru Edward Bernays, companies sought ways to put cigarette smoking into the public sub-conscience. When they noted that some women in the 1920's viewed cigarettes as a way to express freedom and equality, they recognized a tremendous opportunity to increase sales to half the population. They manufactured seemingly organic events of women smoking in public, sought press coverage as true news events, and then reinforced that message with advertising. Along with public relations stunts, they put cigarettes into movies and paid celebrities to smoke their brand of cigarettes. 

It is hard to look back and link the various tactics of the tobacco industry with direct effects on sales, but it is definite that cigarette use grew tremendously in the 20th century, reaching a peak in the 1950's. The cigarette industry was masterful in embedding cigarettes in advertising, in the news, and in popular culture. They played on emotion to create in many people a link between cigarettes and glamour, or cigarettes and a statement about equal rights, or cigarettes and thinness.

This all worked wonderfully until scientists recognized that  the growing popularity of cigarette smoking was accompanied by increases in mortality due to cancer. Strong scientific evidence emerged in the mid 20th century linking cigarette smoking with cancer, and as this evidence made its way from scientific journals to popular media,cigarette sales began to suffer.  The industry fought back against science for half a century using methods that are still recognized today as effective ways to deal with inconvenient but overwhelming evidence. They had success for some time by financing researchers who would be likely to support their argument that cigarette smoking was not harmful. They used those few scientists to create the appearance of controversy and to cast doubt on the overwhelming evidence of the harmful effects of smoking. They played on emotions around freedom of choice. It took a federal racketeering case against the cigarette industry to finally stop these efforts.


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