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Visual Culture and Health Posters

Anti-Smoking Campaigns

[Visual Culture and Health Posters Anti-Smoking Campaigns collage]. 19 November 2003.
"The proliferation of images through reproduction also means that they can be accompanied by different kinds of text, which can dramatically change the signification of the image. Text can ask us to look at an image differently. Words can direct our eyes to particular aspects of the image, indeed they can tell us what to see in a picture... It could be said that viewers/consumers of images often choose to read particular meanings into them for emotional and psychological reasons, and to ignore those aspects of an image that may work against this response."
--Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright, Practice of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture

"The art of visual conversation is aided by a format that encourages speakers seated face-to-face to perform their arguments at length. Such interactive communication calls upon the discernment of an audience that, although absent, is urged to participate as if it were present."
--Barbara Maria Stafford, Good Looking: Essays on the Virtue of Images


This section of the exhibit on anti-smoking campaigns scrutinizes the political, social, and psychological messages utilized by anti-tobacco educators since the 1960s in print advertisements, posters, and billboards, in order to examine how traditional values, cultural conditions, and medical knowledge are conveyed in print media. The exhibit includes images of the cigarette, the smoker, the nonsmoker, smoke-free environments, and celebrities in a variety of campaigns created by voluntary organizations, professional advertising firms, and governmental organizations.

In the first half of the twentieth century, anti-smoking messages emphasized primarily moralistic and hygienic concerns. Anti-tobacco crusaders saw the cigarette as ungodly and unhealthy. Although medical objections to smoking remained implicit in their arguments, activists did not have any medical consensus behind them. In fact, medical opinion was generally noncommittal until the 1964 Surgeon General's Report on Smoking and Health, which consolidated and legitimized 15 years of growing evidence of the dangers of smoking to health.

The 1964 Surgeon General's report marked the beginning of a transformation in attitudes and behaviors related to cigarettes, but smoking norms and habits yielded slowly and incompletely. Despite legislative restrictions on advertising in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the persistent and pervasive marketing of cigarettes continued in different forums. Still, grassroots activists, professional consumer advocates, and the public health bureaucracy remained inspired by scientific and social interest in the hazards of smoking. Their collective anti-smoking campaigns have employed a variety of educational, clinical, regulatory, economic, and counter-advertising strategies.

The Cigarette

In the first half of the twentieth century, cigarette smoking became a widespread habit firmly engrained in American culture. Ennobled by its heroic association with soldiers in each of the World Wars, associated with a new sense of freedom and equality by young women in the 1920s, and generally considered a slightly illicit but forgivable moral transgression, cigarette smoking has remained ubiquitous in popular forms of visual media such as movies, art, and advertising, past and present. As a result, anti-smoking campaigners since the 1960s have been compelled to challenge the perception that the behavior is commonplace and integral to everyday life. Anti-smoking advertisements often use what might be called "deglamorization" and "denormalization" strategies, designed to work against the allure of cigarettes and upset their routine presence in popular culture. By using negative or denunciatory images of the cigarette, for example, they send messages that discourage the aura, appeal, and attractiveness of tobacco use. These messages warn viewers that the cigarette is dangerous, addictive, and deadly. An alternative, moralistic strategy features the cigarette as a threat to traditional social values such as deferred gratification, self-control, and personal responsibility.

The Smoker

Despite the pervasive presence of cigarette smoking in popular culture, and its role as a generational marker, historians have argued that the marketing efforts of tobacco giants never fully legitimized the image of the smoker, with some suspicion that they never intended to. In fact, the seductive quality of smoking cigarettes has often been used as a subtle marketing strategy, emphasizing an association with transgression, defiance, and rebellion. Visual representations of smokers have frequently underscored the guilty pleasure they experience by associating smoking with committing an illicit act. The images of smokers in this section illustrate how anti-smoking campaigns have countered this phenomenon by using three main strategies: 1) appealing to individual and social responsibility; 2) emphasizing evidence from medical research; and 3) deglamorizing the smoker. These images showcase a variety of marketing techniques used to reduce tobacco use by combining information, images, emotional appeals, and psychological tools to influence viewers.

The Non-Smoker and Smoke-free Environments

As the images in this section demonstrate, smoking has long played an important role in popular culture and the shaping of personal identity. This relationship helps explain smoking's persistence, despite widespread anti-smoking campaigns, and also functions as a limit on government intervention in our everyday consumption decisions. Informed by this relationship, anti-smoking advertisers have combined negative representations of smokers with positive portraits of non-smokers as far more appealing or desirable. In some cases this involves emulating the strategies of tobacco advertisers by using the same glamorization and normalization strategies in the depiction of non-smokers as popular or heroic and smoke-free environments as invigorating or therapeutic. These images employ the following techniques: 1) emphasizing the psychological, social, economic, and health benefits of smoking cessation (or regaining non-smoker status); 2) stressing a sense of personal or social responsibility as motivation for choosing to be a non-smoker; 3) using deglamorization strategies to suggest that the non-smoker is more fashionable; and 4) appropriating idealistic or romanticized environmental images as symbolic representations of health and the decision not to smoke.

The Celebrity

The tobacco industry has long capitalized on the ability of the entertainment industry to create, reinforce, and normalize messages. The invaluable marketing advantage this creates for the tobacco companies has allowed them to overcome legislative restrictions on cigarette advertising since the late 1960s. In movies and on television, celebrities facilitate the normalization of cigarette smoking by increasing the perception that the behavior is commonplace and integral to everyday life. Capitalizing on this power, tobacco companies have frequently paid producers and actors to feature their cigarette brands. In Superman II, for instance, Phillip Morris paid 20,000 pounds (about $40,000) for the Marlboro brand name to appear some 40 times in the film. Understanding the power of celebrities as spokespersons for smoking, anti-smoking campaigns have employed counter-marketing strategies to promote smoking cessation and decrease the likelihood of initiation. An integral part of this approach has involved a deglamorization strategy that de-emphasizes and discourages the aura, appeal, and attractiveness of tobacco use through its portrayal of smokers in advertisements.

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