Seventy years ago smoking was part of a normal lifestyle and was even encouraged by cigarette advertisements. But times have changed, because it is now forbidden to advertise and promote cigarettes. The immense health risks and the fact that the youth are easily influenced by cigarette advertisements were decisive reasons to ban these kind of advertisements. In the twentieth century smoking was actively promoted, but in the twenty-first century smoking is actively discouraged. This major difference gives us an opportunity for an interesting analysis. We are no longer familiar with the promoting of cigarettes, so the ads are sometimes even jaw dropping for us.
Theory of Roland Barthes
For this analysis I’ll be using the same approach the French literary theorist and philosopher Roland Barthes (1915-1980) used for his analysis of the Panzani advertisement in his article ‘The Rhetoric of the Image’. Barthes argues that an advertisement communicates different messages by a system of signs. It is important to remember that there is always more than the eye can see. If you are analyzing an ad, you are trying to understand the messages and the cultural and/or ideological worldviews behind the ad.
Barthes used advertisements, because there is just one image that has to sell the product and the audience must be able to relate to it. People needed to recognize its message immediately. According to Barthes there is always something in the ad that ‘goes without saying’. Some things are so obviously, that it is not necessary to communicate it to its audience, because they are known to them. An advertisement can, for this reason, tell us a lot about the cultural values and ideologies from the time the ad was produced. The ad creates a myth, a dominant ideology, and by repeating this myth it created a certain naturalization. An advertisement naturalizes the cultural values, this means that they make it look like the dominant cultural values are natural, time-less, obvious and objective reflections of the real world. I will now use this theory for my own case-study: Marlboro cigarette advertisements.
The brand Marlboro was created in 1924 by Philip Morris & Co., Ltd, Inc. company. The Marlboro cigarette was a filtered cigarette and were synonymous with women.
This is an early advertisement from the year 1935. Barthes identified three layers of messages: the linguistic message, the literal, or denoted message and the symbolic, or connoted message. I will analyse these three layers in this early ad. I start with the linguistic layer. In this ad are multiple linguistic elements: ‘Ivory Tips, protect the lips’ (upper left corner), ‘Marlboro’ (down in the middle), ‘Mild as May’ (lower left corner) and ‘A Cigarette created by Philip Morris’ (lower right corner). Most of this information is literal and gives the audience some basic information, like the brand name Marlboro, that it is created by the company Philip Morris and the fact that the cigarette has an ivory tip. The style of the letters is a symbolic message, because the letters are very stylish and is often related with a feminine handwriting. The slogan ‘Ivory tips, protect the lips’ is targeting women, because they are concerned with protecting their lips. The other slogan ‘Mild as May’ is also symbolic. From early on, smokers were aware that smoking irritated the throat and their lungs. These were very inconvenient, but they didn’t know the serious health risks of smoking. Cigarette companies started claiming that their cigarettes were mild and were better for your health. This mildness was emphasized especially for women cigarettes, because men were more able to handle these health issues than women.
The second layer is the literal message. What do you see in the image? Or in other words, what is it trying to sell? In this ad we see a woman holding a cigarette. She has a confident expression on her face and looks very stylish. Her make-up is beautiful with a dark lipstick. The tip and the rest of the cigarette is, in comparison with the rest of the image, extremely white. At the bottom we see the product that they are trying to sell: the cigarettes in their package.
The third layer is the most interesting layer, because this is the layer where we find what ‘goes without saying’. The ideological and/or cultural values are the main focus. What does this advertisement say about the year in which it was made? It tells us something about gender and femininity. It presents an ideal of beauty, like the use of make-up, the hairstyle, the nail polish and the clothing. It shows us an independent and confident woman who can smoke her ‘own’ mild cigarettes. It represents a world where smoking is part of daily life, even women smoke cigarettes. Smoking is not only associated with lower classes, but it is also normal in higher classes.
Nowadays we do not connect Marlboro to woman, maybe even the opposite. In the 1950s Marlboro needed a bigger audience. Leo Burnett created an archetypal masculine character: the Marlboro man. This masculine cowboy man was a very successful advertisement campaign, with direct impact on sales, and became the most popular cigarettes brand. There was no more room for the ‘health benefits’ of the filter or room for women, because Marlboro wanted to change its image. Smoking was now related to masculinity, exploring, reason, independence, liberty, strength, and so on. The Marlboro man was not only a sign of a cigarette brand, but is was also an ethos of the American white middle-class man.
The Marlboro advertisment campaigns are more than just advertisments that are trying to sell cigarettes. They have more meaning and a lot of this meaning ‘goes without saying’. It is quite interesting to see how admakers use cultural values and ideologies to sell a product to its audience.
 Richard Howells & Joaquim Negreiros, Visual Culture (Cambridge, 2012), 123.
 Barthes, Roland (1977): Image-Music-Text. London: Fontana