The Last Cigarette Commercial Ever Aired on American TV (1971)

The slo­gan “You’ve come a long way, baby” still has some pop-cul­tur­al cur­ren­cy. But how many Amer­i­cans under the age of six­ty remem­ber what it adver­tised? The line was first rolled out in 1968 to pro­mote Vir­ginia Slims, the then-new brand of cig­a­rettes mar­ket­ed explic­it­ly to women. “Every ad in the cam­paign put a woman front and cen­ter, equat­ing smok­ing Vir­ginia Slims with being inde­pen­dent, styl­ish, con­fi­dent and lib­er­at­ed,” says the Amer­i­can Asso­ci­a­tion of Adver­tis­ing Agen­cies. “The slo­gan itself spoke direct­ly about the progress women all over Amer­i­ca were fight­ing for.”

Such was the zeit­geist pow­er of Vir­ginia Slims that they became the very last cig­a­rette brand ever adver­tised on Amer­i­can TV, at 11:59 p.m on Jan­u­ary 2, 1971, dur­ing The Tonight Show Star­ring John­ny Car­son. Richard Nixon had signed the Pub­lic Health Cig­a­rette Smok­ing Act, which banned cig­a­rette adver­tise­ments on broad­cast media, on April 1, 1970. But it did­n’t take effect imme­di­ate­ly, the tobac­co indus­try hav­ing man­aged to nego­ti­ate for itself one last chance to air com­mer­cials dur­ing the col­lege foot­ball games of New Year’s Day 1971.

“The Philip Mor­ris com­pa­ny has bought all com­mer­cial time on the first half hour of all the net­work talk shows tonight,” says ABC’s Har­ry Rea­son­er on a news­cast from that same day. “That is, the last half hour on which it is legal to sell cig­a­rettes on radio or tele­vi­sion in the Unit­ed States. This marks, as we like to say, the end of an era.” In trib­ute, ABC put togeth­er an assem­blage of past cig­a­rette com­mer­cials. That some will feel odd­ly famil­iar even to those of us who would­n’t be born for a decade or two speaks to the pow­er of mass media in post­war Amer­i­ca. More than half a cen­tu­ry lat­er, now that cig­a­rettes are sel­dom glimpsed even on dra­mat­ic tele­vi­sion, all this feels almost sur­re­al­is­ti­cal­ly dis­tant in his­to­ry.

Equal­ly strik­ing, cer­tain­ly by con­trast to the man­ner of news anchors in the twen­ty-twen­ties, is the poet­ry of Rea­son­er’s reflec­tion on the just-closed chap­ter of tele­vi­sion his­to­ry. “It isn’t like say­ing good­bye to an old friend, I guess, because the doc­tors have con­vinced us they aren’t old friends,” he admits. “But we may be par­doned, I think, on dim win­ter nights in the future, sit­ting by the fire and nod­ding and say­ing, ‘Remem­ber L.S./M.F.T.? Remem­ber Glen Gray play­ing smoke rings for the Camel car­a­van? Remem­ber ‘Nature in the raw is sel­dom mild’? Remem­ber all those girls who who had it all togeth­er?’ ”

Relat­ed con­tent:

When the Flint­stones Ped­dled Cig­a­rettes

Cig­a­rette Com­mer­cials from David Lynch, the Coen Broth­ers and Jean Luc Godard

Two Short Films on Cof­fee and Cig­a­rettes from Jim Jar­musch & Paul Thomas Ander­son

Glo­ri­ous Ear­ly 20th-Cen­tu­ry Japan­ese Ads for Beer, Smokes & Sake (1902–1954)

How Edward Munch Sig­naled His Bohemi­an Rebel­lion with Cig­a­rettes (1895): A Video Essay

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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Comments (3)
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  • EB says:

    So I see we’re not the first gen­er­a­tion to com­mer­cial­ize fem­i­nism, we’re just car­ry­ing on a proud tra­di­tion.

  • Scott says:

    This was not the last cig­a­rette com­mer­cial ever on TV. There is a famous Kool cig­a­rette TV com­mer­cial from the 1980’s right on youtube with a sax­o­phone play­er. I also remem­ber see­ing Marl­boro Man com­mer­cials when I was a kid in the late 70’s ear­ly 80’s.

  • Dan says:

    Yeah, I agree. I was born in 1980 and I remem­ber joe Camel and the Marl­boro man for sure. Some­body has their his­to­ry wrong, and I mean fun­da­men­taly bro­ken kind of wrong.

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