How big tobacco bought the big screen
It was the golden age of Hollywood, a time when movies defined who we were and what we did. But it was also the golden age of tobacco sponsorship, a time when tobacco companies paid stars thousands of dollars—as well as a year’s supply of cigarettes—to promote their products on and off-screen.
A new report shows just how lucrative the tie-up was for some of the biggest stars of the era.
In 1937-8, actors including Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, were each paid $10 000 (the equivalent to $146 000 in today’s money) by American Tobacco to promote its Lucky Strike brand.
That year, the cigarette company paid film stars $218 750—more than $3-million at today’s prices.
The report, published in the journal Tobacco Control, says almost 200 stars, including two-thirds of the top box-office actors of the late 1930s and 1940s, were contracted to tobacco companies.
The relationship between cigarettes and the movies, started with the advent of the talkies. In 1927, Al Jolson, star of The Jazz Singer, pitched for Lucky Strike and his studio, Warner Bros.
“Talking pictures demand a clear voice,” the star was quoted as saying in a newspaper advert lauding the “toasting” process used in Lucky Strikes. “Toasting kills off all the irritants, so my voice is clear as a bell in every scene. Folks, let me tell you, the good old flavour of Luckies is as sweet and soothing as the best ‘Mammy’ song ever written.”
That campaign was the subject of an inquiry by the Federal Trade Commission that concluded that American Tobacco’s advertising was misleading.
But others followed suit. The same year, director King Vidor said: “It is wonderful to find a cigarette that relaxes your nerves, and at the same time insures you against throat irritation—a condition from which film directors are bound to suffer.”
The promotion of cigarettes as sophisticated and healthy was a task that might have been created for the acting profession. In 1937, Carole Lombard was paid to say: “In making Swing High, Swing Low there was an unusual strain on my throat ... I could smoke Luckies all day without throat irritation. Most others on the set also prefer them.”
The notion of Luckies as the tobacco of choice among film stars was one that American worked hard to create.
“It’s always easy for me to get a Lucky from Joan Crawford or Clark Gable,” Myrna Loy wrote in a signed testimonial in 1937, “or even from most of the newcomers to the studio”.
By the 1940s, the tobacco companies were sponsoring radio shows featuring the stars relaxing on set and talking about subjects as diverse as their new film and their favourite brand.
“You know Lauren, that cigarette I gave you is a Lucky Strike,” Jack Benny told Lauren Bacall, the guest on his radio show in the first week of 1947, during the filming of To Have and Have Not.
“I know, and it’s my favourite brand, too,” replies Bacall. “They’re so round ... so firm ... so fully packed ... so free and easy on the draw.”
Advertisers worked to ensure smoking was integral to filmmaking, and that smoke in a film was seen as evidence of artistic endeavour. The truth, argues the report, is that the relationship was created by commercial convenience.
“The legacy of cross-promotion during the golden age of Hollywood ... continues to be used to rationalise smoking as integral to the art of film-making. Evidence suggests that this integration was a commercial collaboration ‘signed, sealed and delivered’ by the tobacco companies, major studios and many of the era’s best-remembered stars.”
By the early 1950s the tobacco industry switched its attention to TV. But by 1980, smoking on screen was making a comeback, despite increased knowledge of the dangers to health.
The controversy over smoking on screen continues today, but the report dismisses opponents of efforts to give films that include smoking an “R” or 18 rating.
“The presumption,” says the report, “is that mainstream motion pictures are an art form into which social agendas should not intrude. The pattern of close cooperation between the film and tobacco industries ... suggests instead that the motion picture industry was always ready to cater to the tobacco industry’s commercial agenda.” - guardian.co.uk