Perspective: Breathtaking Moments

There’s a universal truth to tobacco ads: Show couples having fun, and you’ll sell the smoke

Headshot of Robert Klara

The first advertisement for tobacco appeared in 1789. It ran in a New York newspaper and was paid for by the Lorillard Tobacco Co. Exactly 186 years later, Lorillard introduced a cigarette brand called Newport. To this day, that brand—with yearly sales around $5 billion—trails only the mighty Marlboro.

Just how much of that success has to do with Newport’s marketing efforts is less clear. After all, advertising a cigarette brand these days is like getting comfy in a straight jacket. The regulatory noose began tightening around tobacco advertisers as early as 1955 when the FTC banned health-related claims. (A notorious 1953 TV spot assured Americans that more doctors preferred Camels.) The choke hold has strengthened steadily ever since. Celebrity endorsers and targeting minors became illegal in 1964; broadcast advertising disappeared in 1971; and mandatory health warnings started appearing on ads in 1984. Finally, 1998’s Master Settlement sounded taps for nearly everything else: billboards, free samples, and—thanks to Joe Camel—the use of cartoon characters.

All of which makes the contrast (or lack of it) between these 1962 and 2011 ads for Newport especially notable. Research conducted back in the 1980s by David G. Altman of Stanford University has revealed that as mounting regulations steadily cut off creative options for cigarette ads, most brands have moved from “high-involvement” to “low-involvement” themes—in other words, to ads that don’t seem to have much to do with smoking. What’s interesting is that when it comes to Newport, that’s the strategy that seems to have been at work all along, as both of these ads demonstrate.

“It’s about couples enjoying life. That’s as deep as the message is,” says Hayes Roth, CMO for global branding firm Landor (which has not worked for Lorillard). “What’s interesting,” Roth adds, “is that Newport’s managed to find a way to continue its campaign from the 1960s to today.” Apparently, the image of young, energetic couples having a good time has been enough to sell smokes for the last half century. In fact, there are really only a handful of important differences in these ads. Today, a tobacco brand can’t show people actually smoking. It would never dare claim its cigarette is “refreshing,” and says Roth, “The other difference is the target audience.”

Oh yes, that. Despite Newport’s denial that it has targeted black consumers specifically, the now infamous case of Evans v. Lorillard established that Newport gave away free packs to youths in a predominantly black housing project. This is delicate stuff, and you’ll still hear arguments on both sides. Chances are, though, the brand had only one thought in mind when it created the 2011 ad shown opposite: Newport is 92 percent of Lorillard’s total sales, and 49.5 percent of black smokers smoke Newport.

Oh yes, and couples having a good time is an image that still sells cigarettes.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.