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Propaganda in the Classroom

Why People Smoke
(I've already read the following text)

As a former smoker, I've thought long and hard about why I reached for that first cigarette (in my case when I was 14), and why so many others have too.

As a child in the 1950s, I remember acting out scenes from movies and TV programs.  In almost all of them, the heroes smoked.  My brother and I would buy packs of candy cigarettes to use as we played out our fantasy roles.  It wasn't long before I craved the real thing.  On many levels I'm sure that I wanted to join those glamorous people beckoning me from the TV, the movies, the billboards and the ads.  The one visible thing uniting them - that ever-present cigarette. 

I bought my first pack, for 25 cents I believe, from a vending machine.  I still remember the thrill.  I also remember the two years I spent quitting smoking in my mid-twenties, fighting daily against the slowly diminishing cravings until they finally disappeared for good.  This after watching my father (a 5 pack a day man) die from cancer; and listening to the unrelenting screams of patients in his cancer ward, where nurses told me that no amount of medication could ease their suffering.

So what drove me to buy that first pack, then kept me using despite a foul taste in my mouth, difficulty breathing when exercising, smelly clothes, etc.?  The answer surrounds us.  The images are so common (coming at us from TV, movies, billboards, magazines, sports stadia, etc.) that we pay them little conscious attention.  But our unconscious is not so oblivious.  It instantly recognizes their implicit promise (attractiveness, excitement, power, health, success, etc.), then links them to something readily available - that cigarette.  Subtle but effective.  By smoking, our unconscious tells us,  we can satisfy that urge for what otherwise would be either unattainable or not easily attained.  The images promise a lot, especially to those not quite adults, but desperately wanting to be without quite knowing just how to go about it.

Research may just now be providing the beginnings of a scientific answer to the question I posed in the previous paragraph.  In mid December 2001, a group from Dartmouth Medical School published results showing that 31.5% of teens with heavy exposure to movies depicting smoking tried cigarettes; while only 4.9% of those without such exposure did so.  A press release published by summarized their paper.  The authors published a subsequent paper in the January/February 2002 issue of Effective Clinical Practice.  In it they report the percentage of teens who report trying smoking after being raised in homes where attending R-rated movies is unrestricted (35%), is partially restricted (12%), is never allowed (2%).  They also report the percentage of those who report experimenting with alcohol.  That was 46% of those from homes where viewing R-rated movies was unrestricted, 16% of those from homes where viewing was partially restricted, and 4% of those from homes never allowing such viewing.

If you are inclined to dismiss research such as that described above and call for "personal responsibility", you might want to look at this Opinion piece, published August 9, 2002 in The New York Times.  In this article, screenwriter, cancer survivor and former smoker Joe Eszterhas begs forgiveness for his part in seducing children into smoking.  (A copy of Joe's article can also be found at  To find out what else Joe has to say about smoking, health and the movies, click on this Google search.). 

On December 31, 2006, the Public Radio program To the Best of Our Knowledge broadcast an hour titled No Smoking. It consists of interviews with authors and filmmakers who have created books and films depicting (and sometimes satirizing) the role cigarettes play in our lives. You may listen and read more about the hour and its guests via links at

Maybe you're wondering why I chose to focus on advertisers' images rather than their words.  Words in advertising can be important, but it is images that dominate advertising real estate.  Advertising space is expensive, and advertisers don't waste it.  Their message is always big and bold, and usually designed to bypass reason.  When you want to know what it is, you must look at what takes up the space they buy (product placement in movies and on TV; as well as traditional print, TV and radio advertising, and billboards).  Usually that is pictures.  The words that count are big and bold too.  When there, they reinforce the image.  Small print almost never counts.  It may satisfy the law, but clearly does not effect the consumer; as close to 40 years of Surgeon General's warnings on cigarette packages (and more recently on advertising) prove.

Promises Made in Smoking Propaganda

Listed below are some basic promises I see made in smoking propaganda.  Linked to each is an illustrative image culled from 1970s tobacco ads.  In addition to the specific promise I've identified for each picture, the presence of young, attractive models promises beauty and health; two things smoking almost always compromises.  For simplicity's sake, I've limited my focus to identifying and discussing one promise per picture.  Given the symbolic nature of images, and the components that make them up, there are clearly others present.  Whoever said "one picture is worth a thousand words" probably undercounted the words.

I've prepared lesson ideas to show you a couple of ways to use these images with your students.

  1. Discuss them in a structured discussion activity.
  2. Analyze them using the Propaganda Analysis Sheet.

After you have finished with the ones I've put up, you might want to have your students find and bring in more current samples for discussion.  They won't be hard to track down.  The tobacco companies make certain of that. (For an historical gallery of ads targeted at kids, see this page - a part of the site.)  They also work very hard to limit our exposure to images that depict smoking in a bad light.  If you need evidence for this assertion, investigate this.

Promises made to men boys and men

  1. It is masculine.
  2. It is exciting.
  3. It attracts women.

Promises made to women and girls

  1. It is feminine.
  2. It is liberating and empowering.

Promises made to both genders

  1. It is sophisticated. (with a masculine tilt)
  2. It is addictive. (All right, tobacco company propaganda doesn't say this; but it is the real reason people keep smoking.)

Manipulative Advertising Techniques Illustrated

In 2007, I created the two Acrobat PDF slide show files below. I used them to show a class of teens how advertisers may use symbols in an effort to manipulate us through our subconscious minds. Most of the ads I included are for cigarette brands. Each file took me approximately one half hour to present - including time for class discussion of the various slides. I used one in each of two class periods.

  1. Symbols and the Subconscious
  2. Hidden in Plain Sight

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copyright 2001-2011 All Rights Reserved.
original web posting: Tuesday, October 9, 2001
last modified: Thursday, April 21, 2011