Perspective: Waiting to Exhale

Smoking will never be as cool as it was in the 1950s, but evoking those days can at least make for a cool ad

In 1955, the American Tobacco Co.’s Herbert Tareyton brand was attempting to adjust to changing tastes by touting its new, easy-drawing charcoal filter, a replacement for the older filters made of cork. The result was the ad at right, which likens a Tareyton smoke to taking in a harbor breeze. Just how credible that message was is tough to say, but viewed in a broader context, the filter tip wasn’t really the point of the ad anyway—nor was it the point of any of the thousands like it from the midcentury. Instead, the aim was to create a world of pleasant associations around smoking itself. “This ad is about opulence, wealth and easy living,” said Peter Madden, founder of the Philadelphia-based branding agency AgileCat. “It was saying, welcome to our world. I think it’s brilliant.”

It was also highly effective. In fact, the association between smoking and the good life (flawed as it may be) is still very much with us. For those requiring proof, consider the ad on the opposite page. Fin is an electronic cigarette that substitutes smoke for flavored vapor. But the brand is harnessing a longing for the good old days—days like the one portrayed in this Tareyton ad—to sell it.

Herbert Tareyton was never a huge brand in terms of market share, but it was one of the first cigarette brands to hire psychologists to help with its advertising messages. Even if a fella didn’t smoke (and in 1955, 60 percent of them did), who wouldn’t have wanted to be part of the lifestyle portrayed here? The suave captain, his beautiful lady friend, the terrace of a yacht club: Tareyton’s image suggested that the snap of a butane lighter was all that stood between the consumer and being the cool cat he had always wanted to be. “It’s like the cigarette is the final piece of the puzzle that’s going to solve everything,” Madden said. “It’s the key to the good life.”

The societal posture toward lighting up has changed considerably in the 57 years since the ad ran. Not only has the percentage of Americans who smoke dropped to around 20 percent, but half of all states have also banned indoor smoking altogether. Smokers have become pariahs, which helps explain the tack of Fin, targeted at those smokers trying to quit. Though the primary message is that people can smoke e-cigarettes indoors, Fin’s choice of a diner from the 1950s—a time when smoking was perfectly acceptable—is the ad’s booster engine, a subtle but powerful underlying sell that runs on pure nostalgia. “The theme for both ads is, be free to live the life you want to live,” Madden said. “They’re about enjoying the moment, declaring your freedom, elevating yourself.”

Fin chief branding officer Greg Owsley couldn’t have put it better himself. “We want to evoke memories of a time,” he said in a company press release, “when smokers were not literally kicked to the curb.”