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Selling the Smokes: Vintage Cigar Ads

For More Than a Century, Cigar Ads Were Among the Best in the Business
Ken Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Michael Richards, Sep/Oct 97

Good ads make arguments. The argument includes a promise, the promise being that if we buy this product, we will become the kind of person the ad depicts. So if one purchases a Montblanc pen, the argument goes, one becomes a person of taste; if one drives a Lexus, one is stamped as a person of means. There's a saying in the advertising industry that goes, "The philosophy behind much advertising is based on the observation that every man is really two men--the man he is and the man he wants to be." The philosophy applies to cigar advertising as well.

Consider a 1950 New York Times ad for El Producto cigars. The half-page advertisement--smack in the middle of movie announcements about Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour at the Paramount for 50 cents in My Favorite Brunette--shows a forlorn man, doubled over with grief. His psychiatrist, leaning back and smiling while smoking an El Producto, diagnoses the man's malady. "He is a victim of frustration," the psychiatrist says. "He has been abroad where he cannot buy El Producto." Next to pictures of the cigars the copy reads: "No psychiatrist needed--try a pocketful of El Productos today."

Another print ad from the same period shows three men in smart suits and Stetsons at the racetrack smoking "America's Number One Cigar, the New Phillies." These pricey gems were 12 cents apiece--3 for 35 cents!--and were a vast improvement over their Philly predecessors because of their "richer Havana tobacco," "finer wrapper" and "milder smoking" (due, but of course, to "the patented curing and mellowing process" used to make them). "Yessiree!" one of the three says, "when I want real downright smoking pleasure my money goes to Phillies every time." Tucked into the Times sports pages, ads for Admiration cigars and Gold Label Bonitas are equally as spirited and innocent.

That's advertising. It's full of hyperbole; but hyperbole may be what's needed. The person who isn't inclined to buy the product needs enticing; the person already hooked won't mind. Advertise-ments draw us into a world where logic is temporarily suspended and where one is led to believe that one's happiness and entire well-being are there for the asking, if only you purchase this product. Whether we as consumers need the product is none to the point. After all, it's not just the product that we're purchasing, but the world that goes with it.

The 1950s represent a turning point in the style of cigar advertising. During the previous 100 years, cigar ads were among the best-conceived, -written and -illustrated of all product advertisements, with wordplay, exciting images and graphic magnificence. Ads since 1950, however, are for the most part less imaginative and colorful. The spot "Should a Gentleman Offer a Tiparillo to a Lady?" (1961), memorable for its jingle, is a notable exception.

Just ask John Grossman. Author, painter, graphic artist and collector, Grossman owns a firm called The Gifted Line that includes more than 225,000 museum-quality antique images. He labels his collection "graphic ephemera" and displays his wares in Point Richmond, California. Included in his collection are more than 85,000 cigar box labels and more than 5,000 other items related to the cigar industry: bands, proof sheets, show cards, posters--even cigar trading cards. For researchers and historians, no more colorful and plentiful record of cigar-related print items exists anywhere.

How did Grossman, 65, become interested in cigar ephemera? "I'm a graphic artist," he says. "Ephemera have wonderful vitality and cigar ads were always beautifully illustrated, embossed. Labels themselves were printed in anywhere from eight to 10 colors. Each cigar manufacturer tried to top the others."

And how. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, commercial color printing was a novelty, having only started in the 1850s, and cigar manufacturers made the most of it. In an attempt to appeal to a broad audience, many of the early ads depict cigars in a manly, sporting context. One cigar box label (1878) shows a cigar-smoking frog hitting a red, white and blue ball. Other frogs--non-smoking frogs, that is--wait to catch it. The ad doesn't suggest a brand name. The only copy reads "The Hit." The illustration is vibrant, homey, even patriotic, with the multicolored ball and an American flag placed in the outfield. The artwork is exquisite. Frogs dressed as sailors appear on another trading card for Durham Cigars (circa 1895). "Frogs were a recurring theme," says Grossman. "I don't know what it is! But the advertisers were trying to appeal to all classes of persons."

Other sporting ads were real grabbers. The Bruiser cigar box label (1886) shows a bloody fist, surrounded by a boxing ring--and that's it. No cigar is in the fist. The dramatic image suggests that if you don't smoke Bruiser--a "real man's brand"--you'll be going down for the count.

Tobacco trading cards were another hit. Stacks of trading cards might be given by the manufacturer to the retailer, who passed them out to customers. People often saved the cards, putting them in scrapbooks. The cards had some attention-grabbing image on one side and information about the product on the flip side.

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