From 'Medicinal' To Dangerous: Cigarettes Through The Years : The Picture Show Believe it or not, cigarettes used to be billed as 'medicinal.' Take a look at vintage ads that show the evolution of public perception.
NPR logo From 'Medicinal' To Dangerous: Cigarettes Through The Years

From 'Medicinal' To Dangerous: Cigarettes Through The Years

Many of the cigarette ads from the last century make claims that seem laughable today.

In bold colors and vintage fonts, they boast that cigarettes can help us stay thin, cure a cough and digest our food. They won't irritate our throats, make our voices raspy or affect our athletic performance.

Today, most of us are well-versed in the dangers of smoking. But vintage cigarette ads can show a timeline of America's changing perceptions of smoking — and how tobacco companies adapted their ads in reaction to ever-increasing knowledge. An exhibit at the Stanford School of Medicine takes a look at the evolution of these ads through the years.

Read more after the jump!

Around the turn of the century, companies produced so-called medicinal cigarettes, which were billed as effective in treating asthma, hay fever, bad breath, head colds, canker sores and bronchial irritations.

As health concerns increased over the years, though, tobacco companies tried to carve out more specific niches to market their cigarettes. Concerns about throat irritation began to rise in the 1930s, so tobacco companies focused on marketing cigarettes as "nonirritating" and "mild." Doctors and nurses made frequent cameos.

In the mid-1950s, tobacco companies began to realize that making health claims in advertisements was becoming too risky, and specific health claims began to disappear from ads. Advertisers began focusing on features of their cigarettes that made them less dangerous than their competitors': filters, low tar and menthol.

Alyse Lancaster, a professor of advertising at the University of Miami, says that in the 1970s, '80s and '90s, advertisers increasingly genderized their product, used targeted marketing campaigns like the Joe Camel cartoon, and focused on aligning their brand with an active, carefree lifestyle that went against what experts were saying smoking did to the body.

The truth about the health effects of tobacco has become more commonly accepted, and restrictions on tobacco advertising have grown. But along with the positive effects of increased regulation, a small loss was suffered by those who simply like to look at bright colors and vintage fonts: Cigarette advertisements lost some of their glamour and artistry.

Those advertisements may not have been the whole truth, but at least they were pretty.

All images courtesy of Stanford University. These advertisements are part of a Stanford School of Medicine exhibit called Not a Cough in a Carload: Images from the Tobacco Industry Campaign to Hide The Hazards of Smoking. The online collection can be found here.

Carolyn is a current NPR Kroc Fellow.

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