Smoking in Movies: Tobacco Industry Tactics

One may not always pause and pay attention to the way in which smoking has been and is being portrayed. Tobacco advertisements are hidden in plain sight, which may create an illusion that no promotions are occurring at all, with tobacco use integrated into a storyline as a valuable plot device. Thus, it is imperative to discuss the interplay between the tobacco and film industry to reveal its influence on the general audience. Such an audience is highly susceptible to external influences as related to harmful habits, which is why it was chosen as the target for the present exploration.

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As mentioned by Freud, occasionally, a cigar is merely a cigar (qtd in Winer and Anderson 101). When watching a movie, one does not consider the fact that the brands of cigarettes that the main characters use are much more than cigarettes. The history of tobacco firms’ involvement in the industry dates back to the 1920s, which are characterized by the advent of talking pictures. The first stage of the increased popularization of smoking through movies is attributed to the period between the 1920s and the 1950s. To make the pictures more realistic, cigarettes were used in films to portray the personal traits of characters (Wilson). Thus, a cigar was not merely a cigar but an addition to the characterization of heroes that the audience sees on the screen. Such an artistic method was highly beneficial for tobacco companies that provided the majority of national advertising for Hollywood films in magazines, newspapers, and radio. Movie stars also signed contracts with corporations. Such old Hollywood actors and actresses as Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Al Jolson, Spencer Tracey, John Wayne, and many others were paid by tobacco companies yearly fees to promote specific brands of cigarettes. Even Ronald Reagan endorsed Chesterfields in several 1950s advertisements.

The exploitation of the Hollywood influence on the general public between the 1920s and the 1950s led to the increased promotion of various brands and products. The method of cross-promotion between tobacco companies and Hollywood developed onto a synergistic relationship that perpetuated the tolerance of smoking by the public. This way of desensitizing the public from perceiving smoking poorly has contributed to the long-term association of Hollywood films and cigarettes that have encouraged regular people to engage in tobacco as well (Lum et al. 313).

Studio-controlled deals with national Hollywood stars meant the reaching of potential audiences who are highly engaged in watching films. The “brand names” that celebrities possessed were beneficial to tobacco companies as negotiating contracts with them meant not only the increased marketing coverage but also coordination with the latest movie releases and campaigns. For instance, in the fall of 1937, “coinciding with the Lucky Strike’s Hollywood campaign, Lord & Thomas paid Warner Bros US$935,000, which is equivalent to today’s US$13.7 million” (Lum et al. 313). This money was intended to create Your Hollywood Parade, a weekly radio show broadcasted by the Warner Bros that would include scenes from its upcoming movies. The cooperation with American Tobacco allowed Warner Brothers to promote its own movies at the expense of another company. Therefore, such collaborative actions between seemingly different in specialization organizations encouraged smoking in the general public, with the negative implications for the overall health of the population.

The second stage pertaining to the history of tobacco in movies is the period between the 1950s and the 1970s. Throughout the development of entertainment, television has come to play a significant role in public life. Therefore, tobacco companies have seized a new opportunity to collaborate with moviemakers and sponsored their programs (Brandt 63). However, between the late 1950s and early 1960s, the public was interested in learning the adverse effects of smoking despite tobacco companies trying to cover up the fact. What was particularly important for the period is that the majority of films were rated as appropriate for young audiences. This meant that scenes in which characters “light up” were regularly seen by young people, who would be influenced to pursue the same harmful behavior to be like their beloved characters. According to the report by Wilson for The Guardian, the reason why almost 50% of teenage smokers in the US try cigarettes can be associated with witnessing on-screen smoking. The act of smoking that is portrayed beautifully by filmmakers can have a substantial influence on the risks of young people getting addicted to nicotine.

In the 1950s, the average occurrence of smoking was 10.7 events per screening hour (Wilson). Such activities range from a movie character lighting a cigarette to a shot of tobacco advertisements. As time went on, the frequency of events decreased; for example, in 1982, the occurrence of smoking declined to 4.9 events per hour, as reposted by Wilson. The trend in the declining use of tobacco in movies can be attributed to the rising awareness of the public of advertisements that are being hidden in plain sight in order to create an illusion of real-life and the native integration of tobacco products into the storyline. Overall, the on-screen glamour of smoking that was highly attractive prior to the 1950s was lost as the public grew aware of the methods that large tobacco companies used to capture the population’s attention.

The third period in the history of tobacco in Hollywood and entertainment overall was marked by the US government-initiated ban on the broadcast of tobacco products advertisements. As a result of that 1971 regulation, smoking on TV dramas decreased by 70% as tobacco companies had no interest in sponsoring movies or celebrities to promote products that were banned in advertisements on television. This resulted in a shift from TV-dominated tobacco ads to new Hollywood campaigns, which had affected many mainstream movies. Some evidence points to the fact that tobacco companies sought to install financial backing into Hollywood movies as “trademark diversification” (U.S. Department of Health 566). However, the strategy was a clear demonstration of intentional incentivizing tobacco use in movies (LeGesley et al. 22). Furthermore, as suggested by the U.S. Department of Health, the way in which tobacco use was portrayed in the 1970s films had a tremendous influence (567). Smokers in movies usually differ from the general population, with them being predominantly white and affluent. Furthermore, they did not consider the consequences of smoking.

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Thus, people do not usually consider the fact that the American tobacco industry has a long history of collaboration with the film industry to promote smoking and advertise some tobacco brands. The glamorization of smoking with the help of beautiful and charismatic Hollywood stars began as early as in the 1920s, with the public becoming desensitized to the use of tobacco. Moreover, showing beautiful and powerful characters on screen smoking was the most significant for younger populations, who tend to get influenced by the images of their idols they see on the screen.

Works Cited

Brandt, Allan “Inventing Conflicts of Interest: A History of Tobacco Industry Tactics.” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 102, no. 1, 2012, pp. 63-71.

LeGresley, Eric, et al. “Movie Moguls: British American Tobacco’s Covert Strategy to Promote Cigarettes in Eastern Europe.” European Journal of Public Health, vol. 16, sup. 5, 2006, 21-27.

Lum, K, et al. “Signed, Sealed and Delivered: “Big Tobacco” in Hollywood, 1927-1951.” Tobacco Control, vol. 17, no. 5, 2008, pp. 313-223.

U.S. Department of Health. Preventing Tobacco Use Among Youth and Young Adults. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2012.

Wilson, Jamie. “Smoking in Films as Cool as in the 50s.” The Guardian. 2005, Web.

Winer, Jerome, and James Anderson. The Annual Psychoanalysis, V. 29: Sigmund Freud and His Impact on the Modern World. Analytic Press, 2013.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, August 9). Smoking in Movies: Tobacco Industry Tactics. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/smoking-in-movies-tobacco-industry-tactics/

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