The Art of Advertising Tobacco Products in Books

Once upon a time tobacco companies would stick advertisements in paperback books. Literary detective Paul Collins tracked down some authors whose novels were filled with ads.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

We're used to seeing advertisements just about everywhere - TV, magazines, billboards, newspapers, storefront windows and Web sites - but what about between chapters 10 and 11 of the latest John Grisham or Michael Crichton novel? Seems unlikely, but it wouldn't be unprecedented. Once upon a time, tobacco companies would stick their ads in paperback books.

Our literary detective, Paul Collins, talked to some of the authors whose novels were used to push cigarettes on unassuming readers back in the '60s and '70s. He joins us from Portland, Oregon. Thanks for being here, Paul.

Professor PAUL COLLINS (Department of English, Portland State University): Oh, it's good to be here.

YDSTIE: So, first of all, how did you come across this story?

Prof. COLLINS: Initially, this came up out of my own childhood recollection of actually seeing these paperbacks at flea markets and simply in bookstores and coming across these ads. More recently, I was actually - I happen to pick up an old paperback and started flipping through it and found one of these ads. It got me intrigued about how did this come about. As a kid, I just took it for granted that these things would be in books.

YDSTIE: Mm-hmm. Well, how did advertising in books began?

Prof. COLLINS: They were really the brainchild of a guy named Roy Benjamin. He was a Madison Avenue adman in the 1950s. And he came up with the idea of putting these inserts into paperback books. And he actually got some of the really major publishers onboard to do it by 1959, including Pocket Books and Bantam, New American Library. So then, it was just a matter of finding the advertisers for it.

YDSTIE: So it wasn't just cigarette companies.

Prof. COLLINS: No, that's the funny thing about it. It actually started fairly innocently, one might say, with Dr. Spock's "Baby and Child Care," which was a massive seller.

YDSTIE: Now, that's going for very young smokers.

Prof. COLLINS: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. COLLINS: They were pushing, basically, baby-related products. You know, and they were pushing things like Carnation milk and Q-Tips and baby cribs and - things of that sort. And they were charging about $7,000 a page for these ads, and for about a 24-page ad insert for a print run of maybe half a million. So if you do the math, that represents a really major increase in their profit.

YDSTIE: Well, who is making the money on this - publishers or authors? Now, I think I know the answer to that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. COLLINS: Yes. Definitively, the publishers were making the money here. The real test case for this was Spock because he didn't want these ads in his books. And in fact, he got a lot of flack from his colleagues and from other physicians for giving the appearance of endorsing these products by having ads of them in his book; he took them to court.

YDSTIE: So, yeah, so Pocket Books won in the courts. Did that open the floodgates for advertising?

Prof. COLLINS: For a while. When it really started to happen was in 1969, after cigarette ads got banned from TV. And suddenly, there's all this ad money sloshing around with nowhere to go, and over the course of four years, they put out a total of 540 million ads; readers were being flooded with these ads. They tended to turn up in kind of the pulpier titles, but they also turn up a lot in science fiction, which was problematic because, for one thing, there were a lot of kids reading science fiction. But the funny thing is that although it was mostly the kind of the more mass market and pulpier titles getting hit, I found some really surprising ones too, including an ad for 74,000 copies of "The Bluest Eye" by Toni Morrison. And there were other books, like a - there's a Michael Frayn novel as well that got hit. He didn't even know that there had been an ad put in his book until I contacted him.

YDSTIE: What did he say?

Prof. COLLINS: He was not pleased.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. COLLINS: He - I believe the words he used were profoundly depressing. The Authors Guild was so incensed about this practice that their board put out a unanimous statement condemning it and asking publishers to start putting clauses in their contracts requiring authors to give permission, but that didn't happen because, frankly, there was just too much money being made.

YDSTIE: So why is it that we aren't seeing more of these ads right now?

Prof. COLLINS: Well, I think it's really two things: one was the resistance from agents and authors eventually did start to get through to publishers. I suspect the bigger reason is that the market itself changed. And there was actually a study that R.J. Reynolds did in 1983 for their Salem cigarettes campaign and they were trying to decide which media to use. And what they found in studying their smokers was that their smokers were not reading. This was becoming an increasingly less-educated audience, and so books were just not the best way to reach them.

YDSTIE: Paul Collins is our literary detective. He teaches writing at Portland State University in Oregon, and his essay "Smoke This Book" will appear tomorrow in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. Thanks very much.

Prof. COLLINS: Oh, thanks. Good to be here.

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