Big Tobacco will do absolutely anything to make a sale, as made clear by their blatant targeting of women. Tobacco companies spin lie after lie, promising better skin, smaller waistlines and enhanced personal appeal. “You will never achieve the effortless fashion of Parisian women without a slim cigarette in your hand,” Big Tobacco will say as they shove their slender menthols into models’ and influencers’ hands. 

The Feminization of Cigarettes

The history of women and tobacco dates back to the 1920s, when women were told smoking was off-limits for them. However, as the roles of women in society shifted, so did the societal stance on cigarettes. Throughout the decade, cigarettes would go from “social taboo” to “feminine staple.” Tobacco companies such as Philip Morris and Imperial Brands quickly adapted to this change and have continued to capitalize on every fad in the hundred years since.

Perhaps their most sinister attacks toward women are the ones that tapped into their insecurities over body image and popularity. As more and more women gravitated toward menthol cigarettes, the industry added words like “light,” “slimming” and “appetite-suppressing” to their marketing campaigns. Tobacco companies continue to use these terms and have also added phrases like “plant-based” and “organic” to their updated ads to appeal to health-conscious types. As of 2022, 44% of women who smoke prefer menthol cigarettes, largely due to these targeted marketing ploys.

In 1929, there was the much-publicized event in the Easter Sunday parade in New York where Great American Tobacco hired several young women to smoke their “torches of freedom” (Lucky Strikes) as they marched down Fifth Avenue, protesting women’s inequality.”

-Amanda Amos, Margaretha Haglund

The “Torch” of Freedom: Appropriation of Women’s Rights Movements

Throughout the years, tobacco companies have flipped the role of cigarettes from “fashion accessories” and “appetite suppressants” to “political statements” and “symbols of academic and corporate success.” Their ads have transitioned from floral and pink to sharp and chic, embedding their products even deeper into the lives of women. They’ve pushed the narrative that tobacco companies are helping the world more than harming it. They’ve even offered Afghan women scholarships, promoted women-specific holidays and donated money to popular and current social issues.

On International Women’s Day in 2019, two tobacco companies, Philip Morris International and British American Tobacco, posted multiple tweets in support of the day. They called on common themes of women’s equality, such as equal pay and maternity leave, while cleverly pulling in “pro-women” advertisements. This resulted in many popular creators and influencers using the tobacco companies’ hashtags for their own International Women’s Day posts, which resulted in a huge sales spike for the industry.

The social media tactics run even deeper, as many TikTok and Instagram influencers are paid to promote vape and nicotine products to teen girls — the most highly sought-after demographic. Fortunately, several cease-and-desist orders have been set in motion to prevent the spread of these hashtags and other promotional efforts. However, Big Tobacco always finds new loopholes through product placement and new tactics.

How We Built the Character

In our “Shapeshifter” ad, we characterize Big Tobacco as a fashionable and independent woman to highlight the harsh manipulation tactics tobacco companies use to target women every day. Big Tobacco has worked hard to trick women into thinking a cigarette in hand is a symbol of power and success that also “makes everything more fun!” Tobacco companies don’t care which aesthetic women are going for or what path they’re taking in life. Big Tobacco’s only goal is to groom lifelong customers.


Source: America’s Health Rankings

As pro-tobacco narratives shift, public health narratives must shift as well, informing women that tobacco and nicotine will not enhance their power and femininity, but instead, lead to addiction, sickness and death. It is up to us to fight their lies with truth.

Click here to view Big Tobacco’s other shapeshifting personas.