The Death of the Cool Feminist Smoker

Forty years ago, women's lib was used to peddle cigarettes.
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This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health, the public announcement that definitively implicated cigarettes in lung cancer and heart disease.

Yet it would still be another four years before Phillip Morris launched Virginia Slims, the first brand marketed specifically to women and the last tobacco campaign to air on television: a one-minute genealogy of women smokers “from Flapper to Female Lib,” in the campaign’s signature style. The trappings of late-60's and 70's female counter-culture were Virginia Slims’ primary rhetorical currency.

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Back then, education taught men to run the world and women to run the house,” says a banner of text crowning one 1975 Virginia Slims glossy ad. A waify woman in a shimmering sea-green jumpsuit traipses across this double-paneled ad, a cigarette dipping from her fingers. She’s laughing, fancy-free, answering to no one but herself. In the background, her 19th-century finishing-school foils sport tightly bound buns and cotton pinafores, visibly bored by classwork that includes egg beating and flour sifting.

Virginia Slims was by far the most successful female-targeted tobacco brand in history, but it wasn’t the only one that used popular women’s liberation rhetoric to sell products.

Eve, introduced in 1970, boasted floral-printed tipping papers and soft packs, and prompted women to identify with a radical Eve-out-of-Eden. A bedroom-eyed woman wearing a paisley halter dress sits cross-legged on the floor, clutching a cigarette: “There’s a little Eve in every woman.” More’s ads used a subtle (or not so) female sexual pleasure campaign, though their leggy models  dressed professionally, like a VS gal after her first promotion or on a solo vacation: "'I'm More Satisfied'", “‘What’s the Point of a Cigarette Like That?’ ‘Pure Pleasure.’” DAWN 120s, meanwhile, targeted a rugged woman’s-woman, donned in flannel, winning rodeos, catching trout: “Taste the Triumph.”

These tableaus sprung from the marketing model that Virginia Slims introduced, and continued to use—aspirational, historical, drawing from Second-Wave feminism ethos—at least until the late 1980's.

According to “The Virginia Slims Identity Crisis: an inside look at tobacco industry marketing to women,” a study conducted at the Yale School of Medicine's department of psychiatry using de-classified Phillip Morris documents, by the late-1980's Virginia Slims’ That Girl-style campaigns were crowded out by the slick corporate queens of Misty (American Tobacco Company) and Capri (Brown & Williamson) on magazine pages. By then, Virginia Slims smokers were already loyal patrons and heading toward middle-age. They no longer fancied themselves in knee socks and terry cloth. So what feminine fantasy was going to replace it?

The new Gen X smokers were the first teenagers to be exposed to high-volumes of anti-tobacco PSAs, and if Phillip Morris was going to outshine the American Lung Association, they needed to change their approach. The Yale study dug up a 1991 focus group study conducted by Marketing Perceptions, Inc., that describes the values of the new female smoker:

  • Money, material acquisitions, a good job (pays well, more so than gratifies)
  • Fears: Risks with commitment to relationships, marriage, children
  • Social activism, political statements: None.

Times had changed. The Misty or Capri “girls” wanted high-paying jobs, expensive cars, self-help aphorisms, and above all, felt that women’s liberation was a cheesy relic locked in the past. “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” fell short next to “Slim 'N Sassy” or “There Is No Slimmer Way to Smoke.”

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Adrian Shirk is a writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in The AirshipWilder Quarterly, and Packet.

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