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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