Cigarette Ads Were Once Based on Women Being "Better" Than Men


Times really were different in the ’60s and ’70s. Not only was it still cool to smoke back then, but it was also cool to pin your cigarette ad campaign on women’s lib.

The Atlantic has a retrospective on women-targeted cigarette advertising from the late-1960s through the 1990s. It starts off with Virginia Slims ads featuring slogans like this: “We make Virginia Slims especially for women because they are biologically superior to men.” Burn! There was also a cigarette brand called Eve, which told women, “There’s a little Eve in all of us,” equating smoking with independence and sexual freedom.

As second-wave feminism fell out of vogue, cigarette advertising shifted to “having it all,” including shiny and expensive material possessions, a high-powered job, a successful relationship, and even the ideal body. Recent anti-smoking ads are pegged to turning off boys and losing your looks.

On one level, this is progress, right? It’s messed up to co-opt a political movement to sell products that cause cancer and other fatal diseases. It’s also a depressing by-product of capitalism, to have a revolution used to sell shit, as I’m sure some 70s women libbers would point out.

Yet cigarette advertising is also an interesting lens through which we can trace how out-of-vogue the political aspects of feminism have become. Sexism against women in advertising still sells, though things are starting to change a bit, but in this day and age, I bet that any campaign that even implied much less explicitly stated that women are better than men would garner a ton of vitriol. And the emphasis is no longer on changing gender roles (although the Virginia Slims ads of yore are populated by gorgeous women), but on the perception that women have arrived, and now they can get back to worrying about their physical appearance and romantic relationships, à la Carrie Bradshaw.

Maybe cigarette and anti-smoking ads are pegged to third-wave feminism. Or do they reflect the “we’ve come so far, but not far enough” trap?

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