Timeline of tobacco industry Hollywood involvement

The U.S. tobacco industry has a long, documented history of collaborating with the U.S. film industry to promote smoking and tobacco brands.

1920s to 1950s

Tobacco companies embraced Hollywood in 1927, the year of the first "talking picture.” From the late 1930s through the 1940s, two out of three top adult movie stars advertised cigarettes while also smoking on screen. In one year alone, tobacco companies agreed to pay stars at least $3.3 million (in today’s dollars) for their advertising services.

Most of these cross-promotion deals were brokered by the large movie studios, which held their stars under ironclad contracts. In return, the movie studios gained national ad campaigns promoting the studios’ stars and plugging their latest movies — all paid for by the tobacco companies.

Studios and stars changed cigarette brands as different tobacco campaigns rolled through Hollywood. In these years, American Tobacco (Lucky Strike), Lorillard (Old Gold), RJ Reynolds (Camel), Liggett & Myers (Chesterfield), and Brown & Williamson (Raleigh) collaborated with Paramount, Warner Bros., Fox, MGM, Columbia, RKO, United Artists and Universal. Most of these movie studios are still in business today.

In the early 1950s, tobacco companies shifted their ad dollars to a new medium, television. But commercial collaboration with Hollywood producers surfaced again in the 1970s, after cigarette commercials were banned from TV and radio. 

  • Read a history of this period based on previously secret tobacco industry documents.

After 1970

1972 | 'Film is far better than any commercial that has been run on television or in any magazine, because the audience is totally unaware of any sponsor involvement,' a film producer pitched RJ Reynolds, soon after tobacco commercials were banned on US radio and television. 

1982 | Advertising agency Cunningham & Walsh outlined product placement opportunities to its tobacco client, Brown & Williamson: 

Recently there have been a number of high-visibility feature films in which one or more of the central characters smoke a particular brand of cigarettes. This has been happening because cigarette manufacturers have been paying for the exposure … For example, Superman II … included a classic fight scene in which Superman and the bad guys throw a Marlboro truck back and forth across Lexington Avenue. This truck was produced solely for the movie and exists nowhere else.

1983 | Hamish Maxwell, president of Philip Morris International, and later chairman of Philip Morris Companies (now Altria), told his marketers: 

Smoking is being positioned as an unfashionable, as well as unhealthy, custom. We must use every creative means at our disposal to reverse this destructive trend. I do feel heartened at the increasing number of occasions when I go to a movie and see a pack of cigarettes in the hands of the leading lady. This is in sharp contrast to the state of affairs just a few years ago when cigarettes rarely showed up on camera. We must continue to exploit new opportunities to get cigarettes on screen and into the hands of smokers.

1989 | 1 | 2 | By the end of the 1980s, tobacco product placement in movies had become so glaring that it triggered a Congressional investigation. The spotlight 'put a crimp in our proactive promotion plans,' American Tobacco’s product placement agency reported. Yet the agency went on to list more than a dozen placements of American Tobacco brands, such as Lucky Strike, in films from movie studios including Columbia, Disney, Fox, MGM, Universal, and Warner Bros. from 1988 to 1990.

'Keep a foot in the door…retreat plays into [Congress’s] hands,' the placement agency advised its client. Also, 'reconsider [your] cable [and] TV hands-off policy' by influencing 'mature shows focused on adult audiences' to show American Tobacco brands.

  • Read a history of this period based on previously secret tobacco industry documents.

How do we know that Big Tobacco is telling the truth now?

Not-so-full disclosure? | For decades, Congress has required tobacco companies to report their marketing expenditures and sales results to the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC has periodically tightened its reporting requirements on product placement. How candid were the tobacco companies? Compare product placement reports on Philip MorrisAmerican Tobacco,  RJ Reynolds, and Brown & Williamson based on once-secret tobacco industry documents with what the companies told the FTC.

The barter system | Besides 'promotional fees,' tobacco companies also supplied film productions with cigarettes worth hundreds, even thousands of dollars [1]. Yet the tobacco companies apparently did not report these in-kind transfers to the FTC as a form of payment.

Tobacco placement in kids' films | Tobacco companies also customarily inserted clauses in contracts with their Hollywood agents forbidding product placement in movies targeted at children or teens. (Example: American Tobacco) But 30 percent of films reportedly supplied by Philip Morris in the 1980s were rated G, PG, or PG-13 [2]. And more than 40 percent of films that American Tobacco supplied with cigarettes were youth-rated, half of them rated PG [3].

Note 1 | Philip Morris supplied cigarettes to films in the late 1980s. American Tobacco supplied cigarettes worth more than $5,000 wholesale to Beverly Hills Cop (1984).

Note 2 | Based on ratings of films in a Philip Morris film inventory.

Note 3 | Based on ratings of films listed by American Tobacco’s product placement agent.