Tobacco advertising dates to 1789, when Lorillard Brothers began placing advertisements in New York newspapers for its snuff and tobacco products. Because the newborn industry relied primarily on hand production, manufacturers could only meet the demands of their immediate communities. Early ads were thus limited to local newspapers, as well as packaging like tobacco tins and promotional items like tobacco cards, which debuted in the 1870s.

With the patent of a cigarette rolling machine in 1881, the productivity of tobacco companies greatly increased. Trademark tobacco signs soon proliferated as well, from giant wall-sized advertisements to display signs designed for store countertops.

Many early tobacco advertisements were simple affairs of colored text, sometimes depicting a tobacco tin or cigarette carton. In the late 1800s, the Mail Pouch Tobacco brand adopted a particularly clever method by partnering with rural families to use roadside barns as billboards. In bold white-and-yellow lettering on a plain black background, the company’s signature slogan appeared on buildings across the United States.

During the 1910s, tobacco signage in porcelain, tin, and cardboard began to emphasize the pleasures of smoking, with slogans declaring each product’s smoothness or beneficial effects. Tobacco was invariably described as mild, cool, sweet, blended, mellow, fresh, or, in the case of a straightforward Virginia Cigarettes sign from the 1920s, as a product that “will not affect your throat.”

During World War II, Lucky Strike debuted a new tagline for its signs, exclaiming “Lucky Strike Green Has Gone To War!” The slogan coincided with a switch from dark green packaging to a clean white design with a cryptic, Morse-code style abbreviation reading “L.S./M.F.T.,” or “Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco.” The campaign stressed that its former copper-based sign color had been changed to support the war effort—emotional marketing at its best.

As cigarette smoking became a new American pastime, signs advertising smoking became more elaborate, often with brightly colored lithographed images. By the 1950s, tobacco signage frequently portrayed smoking as a sign of taste and distinction. Cigarettes were endorsed by anyone with the power of suggestion, from actresses to athletes to doctors. Particularly ironic today are the unfortunate Camel cigarette signs that assured customers, “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.”

One of the longest running campaigns involved the Marlboro Man, a cowboy character developed in the 1950s just as the health risks of smoking began to tarnish the industry’s repu...

In 1969, though, after the Federal Trade Commission began requiring tobacco companies to include the Surgeon General’s warning on its products, regulations in the United States steadily limited tobacco advertisements. Soon many areas banned outdoor signage for tobacco or cigarettes, thus officially ending the industry’s use of sign advertising. In fact, today, the only tobacco-related signs seen in public are those boldface warnings that simply read “No Smoking.”

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