Old Time Radio

Cigarette Advertising in Old Time Radio

smokingLight ’em if You’ve Got ’em Jack Webb Fatima Ad
Many OTR fans will tell you that Jack Webb’s Dragnet is as close to a perfect Radio Drama as you can find. The show makes great use of Audio Branding. From the ominous four note theme music (titled “Danger Ahead”), to the catchphrase “only the names have been changed to protect the innocent, to Jack Webb’s terse and direct narration style, there is no doubt in the listener’s mind that they are enjoying another exciting episode of the prototypical Police Procedural Drama.

This strong audio branding may be part of the reason that cigarette company Liggett & Myers was such an enthusiastic sponsor of the show from the  18th episode forward. In fact, the one complaint that many modern OTR listeners have about Dragnet is that after listening to an exciting episode, they are nearly overcome by the desire to light-up a refreshing Fatima, “the best of All Long Cigarettes”.

A strong testimony of Radio’s effectiveness as an advertising medium during the Golden Age is that modern OTR listeners can feel this desire for a cigarette brand which was beginning to be seen as “old fashioned” in the 1950’s and discontinued from the market since 1980!

Different Times, Different Values

Racist Cigarette Ad
Racist Cigarette Advertisement Example

Radio’s relationship with the tobacco industry is one of OTR’s “dirty little secrets”, not unlike the racial stereotyping which made shows like Beulah and Amos ‘n’ Andy not only possible but popular. Although the programs were and are comic masterpieces, their subject matter makes the skin of a modern listener crawl. Although no modern producer or sponsor would condone the material, ignoring it will deny hours of fun listening.

When the federal government first began licensing broadcasters, there was an effort to keep radio free from commercial advertisement. This sentiment was short-lived as radio’s marvelous potential for advertising was seen. The business model developed by the networks and the advertising agencies differed from print advertising. Newspapers and magazines sold “space” in their publications to the advertisers. The ad agency was responsible for filling the space while the publishers filled the rest of the page with their own content.

Commercial Radio Means CommercialsborngentleL
On radio, the advertising agency was sold a block of time, and it was the agency’s job to fill the time for their clients. Since “dead air” would have been unacceptable, blocks of airtime that could not be sold to a sponsor or ad agency were filled with programs which were “sustained” by the network.

As the networks began serving a nationwide audience, airtime blocks which would reach the greatest number of listeners became very profitable, and therefore, only affordable to the richest advertisers. During the years we call the Golden Age of Radio few businesses were as large of as profitable as the Cigarette Industry.

Smoking Through The YearsEarly Cigarette Ad During the 17th century, tobacco became the first and most important cash crop for England’s North American colonies. Cigarettes, which means “Little Cigar” were developed as an alternative smoking device to pipes or their larger cousin, the cigar. Making a cigar requires a large, high quality tobacco leaf in which the rest of the tobacco is rolled into a tube for smoking. Wrapping flakes of tobacco in a paper tube allows the use of lower quality tobacco (flavor is maintained by blending tobaccos).

Cigarettes can to the English speaking world when soldiers in the Crimean War began wrapping Turkish tobacco in scraps of old newspaper for smoking, and it was not long before finer papers for rolling came on the market. In 1865,Washington Duke of North Carolina began rolling cigarettes to sell, and 1883 James Bosnak founded the American Tobacco Company on the basis of the machine he invented which could roll thousands of cigarettes a day.tobacco_cards_gypsy_queen

By the end of the 19th century, factory made cigarettes were marketed across the US in paper packs. The packs often contained a card to protect the smokes. The card was often imprinted by the cigarette manufacturer to make their product even more attractive, and were some of the first trading cards. Cigarettes were part of soldier’s rations in both World Wars, often provided to the government at a deep discount or even free but the tobacco companies. The first World War was followed by the Jazz Age. After seeing so many dashing Veterans light up, it was natural that cigarettes became as much a part of the flapper’s image as bath-tub gin.

American Tobacco and The Jazz Singer 1928 Al Jolson Advertisement
Radio and Talking Motion Pictures grew up together and fed off one-another’s success. The American Tobacco Company, makers of Lucky Strikes, gained notoriety in the late twenties with a print and radio campaign built around The Jazz Singer himself, Al Jolson. In the ad, Jolson claimed that the toasting of Lucky Strike Tobacco eliminated the throat irritants and that a singer could maintain his shape by reaching for a Lucky rather than a fattening sweet.

American Tobacco was notorious for taking advantage of marketing psychology to find new ways to promote its product. One of the more infamous was the claim that the green print on Lucky Strike packs at the beginning of the Second World War was being changed in support of the War Effort. In actuality, the color change was part of the effort to remove the stigma of women smoking in public. The white pack had already been planned as more appealing to feminine sensibilities, and the War Effort rumor was just a happy coincidence.

Another fortunate War-time break for Lucky was the loss of Jack Benny‘s longtime sponsor, General Foods’ Jello. With Wartime sugar rationing, the company was having a hard enough time keeping its product on the shelves, let alone support a popular radio program. A switch to Grapenuts cereal was tried, but eventually it was more expedient to let the tobacco company begin writing the checks. The cast singing “J…E…L-L…Ooo” was more musical and friendly than “LS/MFT” (Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco”, but even with the addition of a pair of tobacco auctioneers, it was pretty much the same Jack Benny Program.

Infamy Of Other Brands Benny Goodman and his Orchestra
Camel Cigarettes came on the market in 1913 and were very popular with the doughboys of WWI. On the radio during the Thirties, they sponsored Blondie on Monday nights, The Dixieland Music Shop on Tuesday, and Tommy Dorsey, “the King of Swing” on Saturday’s Camel Caravan. The catch-phrase “I’d walk a mile for a Camel” is thought to be as old as the brand itself, but the assertion in the late 1940s that “More Doctors Smoke Camels Than Any Other Cigarette” was easier to trace. CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow supposedly smoked as many as 4 packs a day of Camels, making the cigarette a personal trademark.

Liggett & Myers, producers of the Fatima Cigarettes which sponsored the early Dragnet programs, also brought a series of music programs to the air to promote Chesterfields, at the time their flagship brand. Chesterfield Time featured “music from the movies” while The Chesterfield Supper Club took listeners to a swanky nightclub for an after dinner smoke. The Supper Club was a nightly 15 minute broadcast, hosted by Perry Como on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Jo Stafford on Tuesday and Peggy Lee on Thursdays. The Chesterfield Show was a much simpler affair featuring the number one swing band, Benny Goodman‘s outfit before the war, and the number one trio, the Andrews Sisters. When Fatimas began to fade, Chesterfields took over the sponsorship of Dragnet. Chesterfields also put the smoke in Gunsmoke.

The Simpler Times Conundrum
Tobacco Advertising on Television and Radio has been outlawed in the US since the early 70’s, which is part of the reason hearing the ads on OTR is surprising to new listeners. In a time when smokers are forced to walk to a “designated smoking area”, often several yards away from the activity they are a part of, it is hard to imagine a world where almost everyone carried matches or a Zippo Lighter and there was an ashtray on every workbench, desk, nightstand and dining table.

Before the health dangers of smoking were widely known, any objection to smoking was for “moral reasons”. The real genius of cigarette advertising in the Golden Age was overcoming these social stigma. This success is seen in the movies of the time- how many times do we see the romantic leads of a film making eye contact through a swirl of cigarette smoke?

When the health dangers did become known, cigarette advertising was effectively doomed. The efforts of the industry to overcome the warnings of the medical profession are documented and dramatized extensively. However, it should be noted that truth turned out to be stronger than entertainment.

One reply on “Cigarette Advertising in Old Time Radio”

If you listen regularly & carefully to radio broadcasts of “Dragnet,” you will notice that almost every episode includes a character’s asking for a cigarette & lighting up. Sometimes an episode will include several characters who light up. Embedded tobacco-industry promotions on radio dramas were an even darker, more hidden secret than the actual commercials. The embedded promotions were so hidden that radio stations today promote tobacco use by running old “Dragnet” episodes without any disclaimer about tobacco, even though–if they even broadcast old “Amos ‘n’ Andy” episodes–they’ll preface them with a disclaimer about the racial stereotyping.

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