The Death of the Cool Feminist Smoker

Forty years ago, women's lib was used to peddle cigarettes.
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jbcurio/flickr

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.

rob helpychalk/flickr

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.”

That the rise and fall of Second-Wave feminism is extant in late-20th century slim cigarette advertising suggests that smoking had become, to many, culturally synonymous with female liberation—and its disappearance from these ads showcased the apolitical attitudes of a new generation of American women.

“The formerly uniting theme of social activism now possessed no relevance for young female smokers, and in some circumstances was a turn off,” the Yale study says.

As the affluent dreams of the '80's inflated, brands like Satin and Yves Saint Laurent’s Ritz championed an image of luxury, pampering, and upward mobility. So when youth-target budget brands like Misty and Capri hit the market, it was as though the accessory-laden models knew what a long way they’d come (so to speak) and had nothing to prove to anyone. They wore neon-colored business blazers, pearls, and windbreakers. There were no nods to women-of-yore, no attendant men watching them win something, no salacious she-power, only “The slimmest slim in town!

"Mrs. William F. Talbert, attractive young socialite, at the West Side Tennis Club, Forest Hills. Discriminating in her choice of cigarettes, Mrs. Talbert says: 'Herbert Tareyton is unequalled for mildness and good taste.'" (Fugue/flickr)

By the mid-90s, Virginia Slims had changed their world-famous slogan from “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” to “It’s a Woman Thing” and finally to simply “King Size.” Eve dropped the Genesis-renegade pose, and instead featured business women having after-work cocktails adopting the new, tasteless tag line, “Who says length doesn’t matter?” The occasion of aspirational 1970's feminism—in all of its glamour and glee—as a means to sell one of the most lethal legal substances of all time had come to an end.

By the 1980's and early-90's, anti-tobacco PSAs were far more prevalent than cigarette ads themselves—primarily because of how many restrictions had been placed on the industry. One popular PSA from the Health Department of Washington features a beautiful, teenaged brunette against a black background, puffing on a slim cigarette. With every drag, her skin begins to sag and pile and crease, her hair thinning and drying, until she bears a terrifying resemblance to Freddy Krueger: “What good’s a pretty face when you’ve got an ugly breath?”

Another, released in 1987 by the American Lung Association, depicts a young couple cozying up on a sofa. The girl shimmies a pack out of her pocket and offers a smoke to her visibly disgusted love interest. Smoke billows from her cigarette, and when it clears she has on the bright make-up and jewelry of a tacky aunt—perhaps parodying those Misty models—and her teeth are jagged and browning.

“Aren’t you gonna kiss me?” she says, as her face morphs into that of a reptilian monster, flicking a forked tongue. The love interest flees, and the dejected young smoker sits, incredulous. “Nobody Wants to Kiss an Ashtray.”

While the myth of the glamorous she-smoker had been debunked, the great irony of these PSAs was that they threatened the viewer with boyfriend-retention and lost beauty, a campaign that would have made the original Virginia Slim roll in her grave.

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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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