Sometimes a Cigar Ad

Cigarette (and pipe, and cigar) advertising right now is basically the result of the strange deal the government has been cutting with the tobacco companies. The companies can advertise their wares, provided they resort to increasingly comical indirection and slap on a health warning. Meanwhile, anti-smoking groups use fairly hard-hitting imagery to revile the companies who fund them. The whole system is highly ambivalent; it seems designed to let the United States maintain a credible public face of discouraging smoking without actually kicking the habit.

What would happen if a well-funded non-profit group started taking out ads promoting smoking? I'm thinking of glossy pictures of attractive people actively smoking, together with catchy Madison-Avenue tag lines. "Boogie Down and Light Up." "Sometimes a Cigar Is Just What You Need." Or, maybe just the straightforward "Smoking is Sexy." Or perhaps an Apple-style campaign with iconic black-and-white images of Winston Churchill, Audrey Hepburn, James Dean, and Sherlock Holmes.

The question, of course, is could they get away with it?

It's not clear to me that these restrictions rest on a particularly firm legal foundation. They work because the tobacco companies play ball as a matter of pragmatic calculation (and, to a lesser extent, because major media outlets simply refuse to accept cigarette ads at all). I'm no First Amendment expert, but I don't see how an outright ban on cigarette advertising could be upheld. Just to be safe, my proposed campaign incorporates a number of specific tricks designed to protect it against legal challenge:

  • It doesn't go anywhere near anything that could be considered a claim about the health effects of smoking. It sticks to vague statements that are hard to consider true or false.
  • It doesn't try to sell a particular brand of tobacco products. You could even say that it doesn't try to sell tobacco at all. This is a campaign that is hard to paint as "advertising." (In fact, you could go even further in this direction: add a tag line saying "Tell your elected officials to repeal discriminatory anti-smoking laws," and paint the campaign as political advocacy.)
  • It can be made to appear arbitrarily close to speech that is clearly okay: just delete the tag lines from the iconic-images campaign. If you can prohibit these ads, will you go ahead and prohibit the sale of old movie posters?

That leaves practical restrictions. It's true that the TV stations still won't carry tobacco ads. But there are other media outlets, and even if many magazines flinch at the cynically manipulative nature of my suggested campaign, they'll find a way. Posters, flyers, billboards, skywriting: someone will swallow their values and play along if the price is right.

In practice, I think we haven't seen something of this sort only because no one really wants to spend money on it. The tobacco companies won't do it, unless they have nothing left to lose, because the public-relations fallout would be horrendous. But as smoking ordinances spread and smokers get more and more resentful, they're going to look for ways of reaching a mass audience to try and preserve their public image and stop further restrictions. Perhaps they'll think of something like this one.

The brouhaha that will follow shortly thereafter should be a lot of fun to watch.