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… y 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… as 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. 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 at a later date… the best advertisements are ingenious at leaving impressions. ” A good advertisement doesn’t speak blatantly to the audience, but instead leaves an impression that associates a positive memory with the brand, so later, when the audience sees the brand, they’re more inclined to purchase it. With these two ideas in mind, one can better comprehend the themes prevalent in Virginia Slims campaign advertisements.
The first image is a two-page advertisement which displays a lone woman on the right and three men and three women on the left. The lone woman is wearing a slimming dress, boa wrapped around her arms, hair done, has a cigarette in her hand, and is leaning back sensually while looking at the camera smiling. The three men are standing behind the three women whom are sitting. The six are wearing old-fashioned clothing (circa 1930), which are both conservative and unflattering to the figure.
The men are using their hands to cover (in succession) the women’s eyes, ears, and mouth; a reference to the “see no, hear no, speak no evil” monkeys. The men have smirks on their face while the women (whose mouths are visible) show passive expressions. This ad depicts a theme of the campaign which is that women shouldn’t be controlled by men. By juxtaposing a woman independent and happy and three women controlled by men, the advertisement means to say that women are happier when they’re independent. Focusing on the lone woman, her demeanor depicts her as being happier, seemingly freer, and much more attractive.
In juxtaposition, the three women who are being manipulated by the three men are interpreted as docile and tamed. As well, the see no, hear no, speak no evil reference is meant to say that women are only happy when they don’t talk about what’s wrong, because many cultures, the monkeys symbolize the rules of how to live a good life. Finally, to return to the idea that good advertisements instill positive, lasting impressions, the impression in this advertisement is that women are happier when they are independent of men.
The 1960’s was an ambitious time for women where progress was being made towards equality, so an advertisement supporting the independence of women in a world typically dominated by men, may have been taken very well by the female community. To be part of a minority in a society is daunting because the majority may be intimidating, but instigating change as a minority can easily cause one to feel physically threatened because change challenges the everyday norm of the majority. Thus, women must have felt intimidated and fearful from attempting to instigate a change in the social dynamics of the American culture.
The Virginia Slims ad campaign tried to sell their cigarettes to women by latching onto these negative feelings by attempting to make the female community think the campaign was supporting their movement. The message that women should not be controlled by men would have led women to feel positive towards the cigarettes because they would have felt supported as a minority. Giving this lasting impression, the Virginia Slims brand would have been thought of positively by anyone who felt supported by their message, thus enticing them to purchase their product at a later date.
The women who fought the second-wave of the women’s liberation movement did not have it easy. Attempting to change a social norm by giving women their equal rights in a culture which gave all the power to men would have been seen as a threat to the majorities way of life. Seeing any support would have given these women a sense of relief, which the Virginia Slims ad campaign took advantage of to sell them cigarettes. The next image is of a political campaign button that reads “Rosemary for President”.
Surrounding a circular image of an attractive woman smiling is half a blue circle with white stars and half a solid red circle. Beneath the button is the text “Someday. ” and is accompanied below with a two boxes of Virginia Slims cigarettes. Next to the boxes is the text, “Meanwhile, you’ve got Virginia Slims. The taste for today’s woman”. The theme of this advertisement is striving for an ambitious purpose. The office of the President of the United States is an ardent goal alone, but for a woman in a society dominated by men, this goal was seemingly impossible.
The situation at the time was that women were considered second-class citizens and the men possessed a majority of the power and these circumstances allowed this advertisement to be powerful. By saying “Someday. ”, the image makes the bold statement that a woman is going to be the president one day. This may have been inspirational from the standpoint of an average woman struggling to gain her own independence. It leaves the impression that there’s a goal all women can and should strive for; power. As well, the text that’s underneath the “Someday. , which states, “Meanwhile, you’ve got Virginia Slims.
The taste for today’s woman. ”, the advertisement gives an avenue to use to reach this goal. Although it may seem that the ad blatantly says, “smoke these cigarettes”, it instead gives the audience an avenue to follow if they desire to strive for power. The message becomes, if you’re a woman and you strive for a world where women can be president, smoke Virginia Slims cigarettes. This advertisement worked because it acted on the women who may have felt that they didn’t know how to contribute to the liberation movement.
Virginia Slims gave these women an answer to a question they had no authority over, and in turn enticed women to smoke their cigarettes. Women during the second wave of the liberation movement most likely felt insecure and daunted going against the social norms. As well, it’s expected that they met great resistance from the men who didn’t want to lose their power. Being trapped in a situation where women stay controlled by men or fight a long and hard battle for equality, having a goal of high ambition would have motivated them to continue the struggle.
The Virginia Slims ad campaign gave women a goal to pursue, but more importantly gave an avenue to pursue that goal. Whether it be a woman who struggled to gain equality, or a woman who wanted to fight but didn’t know how to, being told that smoking Virginia Slims cigarettes is a way to support the fight towards an ultimate goal would have enticed women to smoke. The final theme that will be touched on that Virginia Slims used in their ad campaign is that women are stronger and more capable than they appear. The advertisement is an image which displays a woman wearing a superhero costume.
She stands tall, smiles confidently, and faces the audience. Above her is the text “We make Virginia Slims especially for women because they are biologically superior to men”, and surrounding her is material explaining what biologically makes women superior. Aside from blatantly asserting that the female sex is superior to the male sex, the advertisement depicts the independent woman as a superhero, who is capable of more than what’s shown on the surface. Through the lense of the 1960’s, this image conveys the message that women are superior to men because they have a secret power that cannot be seen on the outside.
During a time of women’s liberation, this idea may have given inspiration to a community of women who doubted their capabilities to achieve equality. It must be pointed out however that not every woman who was exposed to this advertisement believed that there was a mystical power within them. The point of an advertisement though is to leave a lasting impression; in this case the impression that women are powerful. Complementing the image with the assertion that women are superior to men, Virginia Slims brings into context the problem that women have striving for equality in a society controlled by men.
Society had primarily been structured to favor men, which consequently made women second-class citizens. Thus, an image boldly advocating the opposite of the social norm would have been attractive to the community whom advocated for change. Simply adding cigarettes to the image subliminally instilled a favor towards the product, almost as an afterthought, thus creating a situation where women would be inclined to smoke Virginia Slims because they wanted to be considered powerful.
During the liberation movement, it is fair to believe that women were insecure and uncertain of what they were fighting for and if they could win the struggle. Being told that they were biologically superior to men, women would have felt confident and reaffirmed to their commitment to the liberation movement. The Virginia Slims ad campaign used the insecurities and fears of the second-wave of the women’s liberation movement to sell women their cigarettes.
Their images made the assertions that women shouldn’t be manipulated or oppressed by men, that they have obtainable ambitious goals, and are powerful beyond common belief. Supplementing these messages with their brand of cigarette, the campaign manipulated women to favorably see their product by instilling in them lasting impressions of support. They sent the message that said, “if you believe in our ideas, you should smoke our cigarettes. ” This evidence shows that women at the time were fighting a hard battle for equality, and that they had fears and insecurities about themselves and the cause.
There must have been a strong willingness and desire for independence women felt when the support from Virginia Slims, whose product knowingly leads to death, enticed some of them to smoke. Today, women are exponentially more respected by society than in the 1960’s. Women who work hard are able to obtain leadership positions, political positions, and can be seen as powerhouses in their fields. Today they are equals to men, by law, in almost all facets of American society thanks to the effort in the sixties.