September 26, 2008
Tobacco companies paid stars like Al Jolson, Bob Hope and Clark Gable to promote smoking as part of secret advertising deals with movie studios, according to a new analysis of cigarette endorsement contracts between 1927 and 1951.
The stars made thousands of dollars peddling cigarettes to consumers. But the analysis shows that major studios and tobacco companies reaped far bigger benefits.
In exchange for star testimonials of brands such as Lucky Strike, tobacco companies promoted movies in adverts worth millions of dollars, the documents show.
"The link between Hollywood and tobacco go back to the beginning of talking pictures,” says Stanton Glantz, director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco. "It was a way to thoroughly embed tobacco use in the social fabric."
Glantz and colleague Kristin Lum mined 246 documents, including cigarette endorsement contracts (made public as part of the tobacco industry legal settlement with state governments), contemporary news reports, and a collection of cigarette advertisements collected by Robert Jackler, a neurosurgeon at Stanford University.
"I was surprised that the amount of scholarship around [the advertisements] was very little," says Glantz.
'Sweet and soothing'
According to the documents, Hollywood and tobacco companies began their relationship in 1927, when an advertising firm brokered deals between two of its clients: American Tobacco and RCA. Other studios, including Paramount, MGM and Columbia, soon followed.
Between 1927 and 1951, major studios and tobacco companies partnered on at least 215 cigarette advertising campaigns, Glantz's team found.
Stars contract-bound to a single studio touted the benefits of brands like Lucky Strike and Camel in advertising agency written testimonials. "Folks, let me tell you, the good old flavour of Luckies is as sweet and soothing as the best 'Mammy' song ever written,” said Jazz Singer star Al Jolson in one such endorsement.
In exchange for the praise, Hollywood studios received free advertising for their movies.
For example, cigarette ads would mention specific movies and endorsements would be tied to their release dates. In some cases, tobacco companies sponsored radio programs featuring their pocketed Hollywood stars. American Tobacco, maker of Lucky Strikes, spent $2.3 million producing The Jack Benny Program.
The US Federal Trade Commission attempted to clamp down on the relationship beginning in 1929 on the grounds that advertiser-written endorsements misled consumers, but studios easily circumvented these rules through lobbying and carefully worded disclaimers.
Television, not government regulation, ended the formal relationship between studios and tobacco companies. More recently, product placements in movies have replaced overt Hollywood tobacco advertising, Jackler says.
Glantz has called on studios and the Motion Picture Association of America, which rates films, to remove smoking from youth films and restrict access to films with smoking. He estimates that such restrictions would cut youth smoking by 60% and keep cigarettes out of the hands of 200,000 youths each year.
The commercial relationship between tobacco companies and Hollywood undercuts objections to such limitations, he says.
"One of the excuses that comes out of the studios and Motion Picture Association [of America] and a lot of individuals who make movies, is smoking in the movies is an integral part of the art form itself," he says. "What this shows is that that’s not true."