Big Tobacco’s Target: Women

Starting in the 1920s, tobacco companies set out to reach a massive, yet previously untapped customer base: women. Over the decades, their efforts to convince women to embrace smoking as a way to feel independent and empowered led to triple digit increases of lung cancer.

Why is it important to understand how Big Tobacco targeted women? Because they’re still doing it — by adapting these proven methods to match women’s social progress. Let’s explore their tactics.

Vintage magazine tobacco ads targeted at women

A Feminine Makeover

In the 1920s, Lucky Strike published a print ad with the headline: “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.” It was credited with increasing sales by 300% in the first year. Just like that, tobacco companies were off to the races in claiming their share of this new market.

The Inner (Thinner) Goddess

In the years that followed, Big Tobacco continued to tap into the aspirations of young women everywhere. They hounded women with images and messaging that reinforced the idea that smoking is perfectly feminine and a great appetite suppressant.

Their messaging evolved to show attractive women wearing high-fashion clothes. They wanted to make women believe that smoking holds the key to unlocking their inner fashion model. Their inner goddess. Their truest, best self. The reality? Smoking only unlocks pain, suffering and addiction.

Empowerment: Changing With The Times

By the 1960s, tobacco executives wanted to hook even more women on their deadly products. Through research and focus groups, they devised a combination of messaging and imagery that resonated deeply. The results were truly sinister.

Virginia Slims magazine ad

In 1968, Philip Morris introduced Virginia Slims, the first brand specifically marketed to women. These cigarettes were thinner and packaged with stylish gold trim. These new cigarettes targeted sophisticated young women. To reach this audience, they borrowed the story of the fight for equality. With the tagline “you’ve come a long way,” they glamorized images of a modern, liberated, woman puffing a cigarette. In the Virginia Slims campaign, Big Tobacco’s crafty marketers were careful not to patronize women for their accomplishments. The irony couldn’t be greater. They appropriated the fight for women’s rights — just to hook them on addictive and deadly products. This tactic proved devastatingly effective.

The trend of women-specific cigarettes continued well into the 21st century. Big Tobacco used buzzwords like “light,” “airy “and “low tar.” As their profits ran wild, so did the death toll.

The Toll Of Evil

Big Tobacco’s targeting of women triggered horrific consequences. From 1960 to 1990, their manipulative practices lead to a 400% increase in cancer deaths among women. Tobacco companies knew their products killed, but mounting deaths only motivated them to seek more customers. The tactic of appealing to the “modern” woman has evolved with the times and remains active today.

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Published by Tobacco Stops With Me on October 12, 2020