The Evolution of Cigarette Advertising: Shifting Narratives and Brand Perception

Written by Sophie Turner

31 May 2023


Today is World No-Tobacco Day – a day to reflect on the impact of smoking and the efforts made to curb its popularity. Over time, we have seen the perceptions of cigarettes change and, in this blog, we examine the fascinating history behind the rise and fall of sales and the impact of advertising regulations.

Firstly, let us go back to the 1930s when smoking held its biggest appeal – a wild time, when medical professionals actually endorsed cigarettes in advertisements. Not only were people encouraged to smoke to relieve stress, but they were also sold on the idea that cigarettes may actually improve their health. Granted, this now seems absurd, but with doctors promoting cigarette brands, it was difficult to argue against the health and safety of tobacco.

Celebrities & Cigarettes: Smoking in Pop Culture

And if backing from doctors wasn’t enough, famous figures from the sports and entertainment industries were also seen endorsing their favourite tobacco brands. This, no doubt, carried a lot of influence, with the glorified use of smoking in films and tv leading to the notion of it being ‘cool’. It was something done by those characters we all aspired to be and presented us with the idea that we would be cooler if we smoked.

It wasn’t until the harmful effects of smoking become apparent – following a series of medical reports over the 50s and 60s – that public opinion began to change. Medical research and awareness campaigns had started to link smoking to serious health issues, such as cancer and heart disease. This led to governments and health organisations taking action to try curb its appeal and put people off this unhealthy habit.

Cigarette advertisements no longer carried the freedom they had been granted. Promoting smoking was quickly banned from various media platforms and doctors endorsing tobacco products was definitely a no-go. Instead of selling the curative powers of smoking, there was growing pressure to include health warnings on packaging, to inform consumers of the risk and deter them from starting, or continuing, to smoke.

The End of Glamour: Unbranded Packaging and Health Warnings

The anti-smoking initiatives didn’t stop there. Cigarette brands soon began to face a loss of control over their products, with packaging becoming ‘unbranded’ due to the introduction of laws that required the removal of any elements used to entice people – such as logos, colours, and distinctive designs. By removing the inherent glamour often associated with tobacco products, the incentive was a bit to discourage young people from smoking – instead putting more focus on the health risks associated with smoking and why you shouldn’t start in the first place.

World No-Tobacco Day serves as a reminder of how advertising regulations have significantly influenced the tobacco industry by not only reshaping smoking’s portrayal but by changing how cigarette brands are perceived. From being the iconic, glamorous product that was seen in every Hollywood film, to being banned from media platforms and unbranded, the changing environment has compelled companies to adjust and revolutionize their marketing approaches.

As marketers and media professionals, it is crucial for us to look back at these changing regulations and understand why they needed to be changed. Our job is to discover innovative methods of communicating with our audience and tell them captivating stories that deeply connect with them. But we must also be responsible for the influence these stories can have, and uphold high ethical standards that prioritise the well-being of consumers. Such is the power of storytelling.

Berkeley Storytelling Academy