Are Women Even Allowed to Do That? Virginia Slims Cigarette Ad Campaign of 1968

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Tobacco has been prevalent throughout western culture since it’s introduction to Europe in the fifteenth century by Christopher Columbus. From English cigars to Native American pipes, tobacco’s popularity came from it’s recreational use. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that tobacco, specifically cigarettes, were identified to have a direct correlation with cancer. CNN’s Brief History of Tobacco chronologically displays the events: “in 1930, researchers in Cologne, Germany, made a statistical correlation between cancer and smoking... by 1944, the American Cancer Society began to warn about possible ill effects of smoking, although it admitted that ‘no definite evidence exists’ linking smoking and lung cancer”. The momentum of this information led to the 1952 Reader’s Digest article “Cancer by the Carton”, which was the point when it became popular to think negatively towards smoking. The article notes that, “[the research’s] effect... was enormous: reports began appearing in other periodicals, and the smoking public began to take notice”, and for the first time in over two decades, cigarette sales declined. Continuing into the 1960’s, Congress passed the Federal Cigarette labeling and Advertising Act which, “[required] the surgeon general’s warning on all cigarette packages”. This meant that the cigarette smoking community was from then on, exposed to the ill effects whenever they looked at the carton. Interestingly though, while there was a passionate movement away from cigarettes in the 1960’s, there was an increase in the percent of overall female smokers. In the compilation Smoking Policy: Law, Politics, and Culture, Michael Schudson points out that, “between 1955 and 1966, cigarette smoking increased among American women of all ages from 24.5 percent of all women to 32.3 percent, at a time when smoking decreased among men from 54.2 percent to 50 percent”. Why was it that women were picking up the habit of smoking when society was putting it down? In my report, I will not give a definitive reason as to why there was an increase in the percent of women smoking, but I will discuss what the themes are shown in the Virginia Slims ad campaign of 1968-74 to argue what these themes meant to women and and what they say about the women of the time. To understand the various advertisement interpretations however, it’s imperative to first understand two ideas; first the women’s liberation movement at the time. The 1960’s is considered the second-wave of the feminist movement. During the second world war, large numbers of women joined the workforce to not only to support the war effort but also take on the responsibilities of the family’s primary breadwinner. This led to women having power and independence which they didn’t want to give up when the men returned. From this spawned a movement for the equality of women. Moving into the 1960’s, the Kennedy administration established the Commission on the Status of Women in 1961 which, “examine issues related to women and [makes] proposals on such topics as employment, Social Security, education and tax laws” and the Equal Rights Act in 1963 which, “[ensures] that sex-based wage discrimination between men and women in the same work establishment was prohibited”. The two laid the foundation for a revolution where women demanded equality. With this context, the Virginia Slims ad campaign was released during the awkward period where women have been fighting for equality for a couple years and becoming more headstrong.

The second idea that needs to be understood is the way advertisements work. The goal of an advertisement is to expose an audience to a product in hopes that they will be attracted to it. Nigel Hollis, Chief Analyst at the global research firm Millward Brown, believes, “successful advertising rarely succeeds through argument or call to action. Instead, it creates positive memories and feelings that influence our behavior over time to encourage us to buy something...
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