Roots of Selling Tobacco to U.S. Women

Images of thinness, glamour and independence have been recurring themes in U.S. tobacco companies' advertising and marketing efforts to attract women since the 1920s.

One of the first advertisements geared toward the women's market was an advertisement for Lucky Strike, which held out the promise of weight loss for those who smoked. One early ad showed a thin woman shadowed by the silhouette of a heavy woman, telling women to reach for a Lucky when they're tempted to overindulge.

The tobacco maker followed up with a second campaign that appealed to women's new-found sense of independence. This time, the company convinced 10 debutantes to smoke in the Easter Day parade, calling its cigarettes "torches of freedom." By the 1930s smoking rates among women tripled.

Over the next 20 years, cigarettes were romanticized in song, movies and television. Advertisements featuring glamorous celebrities like Rita Hayworth and Joan Crawford started appearing in print.

Freedom to Smoke

By the 1960s, when the second wave of the women's movement had kicked into gear, one in three American women were lighting up. It was during this era when Virginia Slims, the first cigarette made just for women, was introduced with the slogan "You've Come a Long Way, Baby." Like in the 1920s, this campaign championed images of thinness and independence for women who smoked.

The Virginia Slims campaign also triggered the biggest growth in tobacco advertising aimed at women. At the same time, fears about the dangers of smoking were starting to emerge, leading some women to quit the habit.

In response, the industry started marketing new low tar and light cigarettes — and women bought them in record numbers. But in fact, smoking related deaths among women were on the rise and would continue to grow, according to figures from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

"I think they should feel that they've been psychologically exploited," says Dr. Richard Pollay, professor of marketing at the University of British Columbia. "That is, there's been careful research to understand what will entice them into smoking. And then the ad's carefully crafted to appeal to those…hot buttons."

Tobacco companies continue to run advertisements aimed at women, focusing especially on international markets where rates of women smokers are much lower than they are in Western nations. Advertisements overseas continue to focus on images of thinness, glamour and independence to appeal to women's desire for these attributes.