Stars of Hollywood's golden era were paid to promote smoking

Tobacco companies shelled out millions to performers for their endorsements.

By
September 24, 2008 22:46
4 minute read.
Stars of Hollywood's golden era were paid to promote smoking

marilyn monroe smoke 88. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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Top Hollywood stars in the 1930s and 1940s, among them Clark Gable, Spencer Tracey, Joan Crawford, John Wayne, Bette Davis, Betty Grable and Al Jolson, were paid by tobacco companies up to $75,000 a year (today's value) to promote specific brands of cigarettes, according to a study by US researchers published Thursday morning in the journal Tobacco Control. The companies contracted with actors, actresses and singers and paid them what totaled millions of dollars to endorse the Lucky Strike, Old Gold, Chesterfield and Camel brands of cigarettes - and the performers did it willingly, even though it was already known that tobacco was harmful to health. In all, almost 200 performers took part in the cigarette endorsements, including two-thirds of the top 50 box office Hollywood stars from the late 1930s through the 1940s. The continued presence of on-screen smoking in today's mainstream films is rooted in these "studio era" deals, according to study authors K.L. Lum, J.R. Polansky, R.K. Jackler and S.A. Glantz of the University of California at San Francisco and Stanford University. The research team accessed cigarette endorsement contracts between tobacco companies and studio-controlled movie stars, as well as advertisements of the period, from university and major US newspaper archives. The period under investigation covered the years 1927 to 1951, from the advent of talking motion pictures to the rise of TV. In return for the paid testimonials of their stars in cigarette ads, major studios benefited from nationwide print and radio ads for themselves and their movies in lucrative "crossover" deals, paid for by tobacco companies, the researchers maintain. The studios with the most "crossover" deals were Paramount and Warner Bros, with the peak of activity occurring in the 1930s, particularly for Lucky Strike (American Tobacco) and in the 1940s for Chesterfield (Ligget & Myers). This all took place even though in 1931, the precursor of the US Motion Picture Association of America had banned actor endorsements and on-screen product placement. The researchers showed that the studios simply ignored the ban, taking advantage of their contracts, which gave them complete control over the use of their celebrities. "They were able to negotiate the content of the testimonials and insist that [cigarette] endorsement ads [linked to] new movies coincided with their release to movie houses," the researchers wrote. "American Tobacco alone paid the stars who endorsed Lucky Strike cigarettes $218,750 in the late 1930s - that was equivalent to $3.2 million in today's money. Individual stars earned up to $5,000 per year, equivalent to around $75,000 today." Though such deals became less common, they still existed as recently as in the 1980s. In 1983, Sylvester Stallone got some bad publicity for accepting $500,000 from the Brown & Williamson tobacco company for smoking in five of his films. In the 1989 James Bond movie License to Kill, the Philip Morris tobacco company paid to show actors smoking Lark cigarettes. Joe Eszterhaus, a heavy smoker, was the producer and writer of the 1992 film Basic Instinct, in which actress Sharon Stone was frequently shown smoking in provocative poses. He later developed throat cancer, which caused him great suffering, and in 2002 he publicly expressed regret for promoting cigarettes in a piece he penned for The New York Times. "I find it hard to forgive myself; I have been an accomplice to the murders of untold numbers of human beings," he wrote. "I have made a deal with God: Spare me and I will try to stop others from committing the same crimes I did." Similarly, actor Yul Brenner appeared, emaciated, in an anti-smoking public service announcement in 1985 soon after his death, in which he warned viewers not to smoke like him. The ad was also broadcast here. Amos Hausner, Israel's leading anti-smoking lawyer, commented that showing scenes of cigarette smoking has been a key strategy of tobacco companies to get children and youth hooked on smoking. "Subliminal advertising is even worse, as it has even more power than obvious advertisements to get young people addicted to tobacco," he said. Many popular Israeli films, as well as Golden Oldies from Hollywood that are rebroadcast here, are full of tobacco smoke, and some even show brand names, even though it is illegal to advertise smoking on TV. Hausner, who in 1998 filed a NIS 7.6 billion lawsuit on behalf of Clalit Health Services against Israeli and foreign tobacco companies, included a whole chapter on how movies shown in Israel subliminally advertise cigarettes. The case has been awaiting a decision by the Supreme Court since 2005. Showing the tobacco ad displays on the sidelines of basketball courts by Israel Television was in 1991 ruled illegal by then-Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak. The Israeli reality show on Channel 2, Big Brother, in which most of the residents of a villa cooped up for 100 days smoke, has elicited complaints; the anti-smoking organization Avir Naki (Clean Air) reportedly is planning to take legal action.

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