Discrimination? Big Tobacco knows that word very well. They creep their way into Black communities and neighborhoods, placing 10x more ads there. They push menthol cigarettes. They don’t care that the quit rate of Black smokers is low and that 39,000 Black Americans die from tobacco-related cancers each year on average — which is much higher than any other race. All tobacco companies care about is their bottom line. 

So … how did Big Tobacco get here in the first place?

How the Tobacco Industry Exploited the Black Experience

In 1955, the tobacco industry began advertising to Black Americans, placing ads in magazines such as Ebony and Our World, which turned out to be effective. Ever since, companies have been using darker-skinned models and African-inspired logos to entice consumers. Unfortunately, the marketing didn’t stop there. Tobacco companies also want to push the narrative that cigarettes will help Black Americans “fit in,” which was the basis of a KOOL TV spot years ago. This further engrained the false narrative that cigarettes are an inherent part of the Black experience.

Menthol Marketing

The menthol-focused targeting of Black Americans is especially sinister. Tobacco companies know that on average, these communities are less affluent with less access to quality health care. That’s why menthols have always been their weapon of choice. Menthols are easier to smoke and harder to quit, making them even more deadly than the average cigarette.

“Our voices should not be for sale. Our organizations ought not to be bought.”
– Horace Sheffield, Civil Rights Activist

In addition to targeted marketing, the tobacco industry has attempted to pay off civil rights activists for opposing menthol bans. They offered large sums of money to well-known political activist and reverend Al Sharpton to support the continued sales of menthol cigarettes under false pretenses. Tobacco companies claim that stricter tobacco laws will only further criminalize Black Americans. In reality, these laws will not penalize the tobacco user — instead, they will penalize retailers. Fortunately, Sharpton declined the offer.

“Today, tobacco-related deaths are still the number 1 cause of death in the Black American community, and that’s not a coincidence.”
– Lincoln Mondy

How We Built the Character

In our “Shapeshifter” spot, the character of Big Tobacco — “Big” for short — morphs into the trusted neighborhood barber. He spins the lie to an impressionable young man that the only way to fit in is to smoke “the smooth stuff,” or menthol cigarettes. This normalization of menthols spreads to an even younger child, who watches the interaction while waiting for his haircut. Unfortunately, menthol cigarettes are shown to be even more hazardous than regular cigarettes, and sales are ten times higher in predominantly Black neighborhoods.


Source: Truth Initiative

Although the overall smoking rate has been reduced, smoking-related illnesses and cancers remain the number one cause of death in the Black community — surpassing AIDS, homicides and diabetes. Join the fight to end Big Tobacco’s immoral marketing schemes.

Click to view Big Tobacco’s other shapeshifting personas.