The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week boasted that its anti-smoking ads are working. That graphic ad campaign showing heavily diseased smokers has been so effective, the CDC claims, that it's unleashing another round of gross-out ads next year in the hopes that Americans will stub out the habit.
So for this installment of Rewind, we're reflecting on an ad campaign that for years did just the opposite: R.J. Reynolds' Camel brand went to lengths to prove that smoking wasn't dangerous at all -- so safe that even a doctor would do it.
While cigarette advertising has historically gone to some pretty far lengths to get Americans hooked, using sexy images of celebrities and patriotic images of soliders, and even placing ads aimed at youngsters in comic books, its most galling effort was medical professionals' endorsement of the habit.
In the 1930s, the American Medical Association's official journal starting publishing cigarette ads. That went on for years. It was Camel, named for the Turkish paper it used, that in 1946 began a major ad push showing doctors lighting up with the famous tagline, "More doctors smoke camels than any other cigarette."
(According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, in reality, this "independent" surveying was conducted by R.J. Reynolds' ad agency, the William Esty Co., who would send staff to query physicians about their smoking habits at medical conferences and in their offices. They'd ask about their cigarette brand of choice, most of the time, after just having provided the good doctors with free cartons of Camels.)
The campaign lasted for eight years.
In one of the spots from that push, this black-and-white TV commercial from 1949, the voice-over aims to change smokers' preference to Camel using "research" stating that rival brands were harsher. The mild taste is preferable even for doctors, such as the actor in the ad who poses as a busy MD, taking puffs from cigarettes in the car in between house calls and in the office while nurses hand him paperwork. It's amazing to imagine that was ever even allowed, isn't it?
Here's what the voice-over says:
"You know, if you were to follow a busy doctor as he makes his daily round of calls, you'd find yourself having a mighty busy time keeping up with him. 'Time out' for many men of medicine usually means just long enough to enjoy a cigarette. And because they know what a pleasure it is to smoke a mild, good-tasting cigarette, they're particular about the brand they choose. In a repeated national say, doctors in all branches of medicine, doctors in all parts of the country, were asked, 'What cigarette do you smoke, doctor?' Once again, the brand named most was Camel. Yes, according to this repeated nationwide survey, more doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette. Why not change to Camels for the next 30 days, and see what a difference it makes in your smoking enjoyment? See how Camels agree with your throat. See how mild and good-tasting a cigarette can be."
The spot closes with a glamorous women taking a luxurious drag off a cigarette, and turning to the camera to flash a big, beautiful smile.
Although there was evidence being gathered about the ill effects of smoking even as these ads ran, it wasn't until the 1960s that America really began to take heed -- as "Mad Men" fans will remember from the episode where Don Draper writes an open letter denouncing Lucky Strike. However, Draper continues to smoke even after that .
According to the National Library of Medicine, a Gallup Survey conducted in 1958 found that only 44% of Americans believed smoking caused cancer, while 78% believed so by 1968. But as we all know, cigarette advertising endured for years. As recently as 1991 the American Medical Association published findings from a report that stated kindergarteners could more easily recognize the "Joe Camel" character used by the brand in later years than they could characters such as Barbie or Mickey Mouse, which brought the campaign to an end.