Tobacco’s Golden Era

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Clark Gable Joan Crawford
Clark Gable and Joan Crawford in the 1934 movie Chained

This shows Hollywood stars Clark Gable and Joan Crawford indulging in a cigarette in the 1934 film Chained. Despite the many health risks associated with smoking tobacco, in the Golden Era, cigarette smoking was a fashion statement that showed the smoker to be a classy person. Indeed, many a student bedroom is adorned with the iconic photograph of Audrey Hepburn with cigarette holder clinched betwixted gloved fingers.

Tobacco firms knew, of course, that smoking was never particularly beneficial to one’s health and with anti-smoking lawsuits looming on the horizon, they turned to more attractive options and people to advertise their wares. Smoking has long been linked with the movie industry and many Golden Era actors and actresses were paid to endorse various tobacco brands in carefully scripted written form and radio plays. Actors who were paid to advertise cigarettes included Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Lauren Bacall and Spencer Tracy. They received up to $10,000 (approximately worth $146,583 in 2008) for their work!

Smoking on screen could also be a slightly subliminal method of advertising. With people seeing these glamorous bodies surrounded by plumes of smoke, by picking up their habits, was it a way for fans to emulate their silver screen (or smokescreen) heroes and heroines with little concern for their health? And does it still continue in today’s society?

An example of a tobacco radio advert script (PDF) for Lauren Bacall shows how companies wanted their brand to be portrayed.

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