Recently I had a chance to visit with the "younger set" for a while. A set, unfortunately, that is getting much, much younger, or I am getting much, much older.
A funny thing came up: TV cigarette advertising.
Could it really be that you would have to be in your 40s to remember TV cigarette ads? I did a little research.
The last cigarette ad before something called the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act of 1972 went into effect aired during a show I am sure I was watching at the time.
It was for Virginia Slims ("You've Come a Long Way, Baby"), and it happened at 11:59 p.m on Jan. 2, 1971, during a commercial break on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson." Funny, but I bet you anything when the show returned, Johnny was puffing away behind his desk.
In any case, the youngsters in the group looked up at me and said: "Tell us, Chuck. What was it like?" The cigarette ads, they meant. They might as well have been saying: "Tell us what it was like, Old Timer, you know, before electricity or indoor plumbing." It was simply that absurd to describe.
One cigarette brand, Lark, had a series of commercials declaring: "Show us your Lark packs!" We were led to believe that as a car rolled down a busy street with someone holding up a sign, that ordinary citizens (housewives, construction workers, bankers, etc.) would quickly rummage through their pockets or pocketbooks and then proudly hold up their packs of Lark cigarettes. It was Fellini-esque.
I told the group about another brand, Tareyton, which blazed new advertising horizons with the grammatically incorrect blather: "Us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch!"
I explained that the slogan was accompanied by a doofus (male or female) with a black eye who, in theory, duked it out with a fellow smoker over brand choice. It was American Tobacco Company's most-successful cigarette ad. The idea of slugging strangers because of the cigarette they smoked left my young listeners horrified.
"Winston tastes good (clap, clap) like a cigarette should" was named by Advertising Age Magazine as the eighth most-successful corporate jingle of the 20th century.
Again, the grammar snobs came out in full force against the use of "like" instead of the proper "as." Nobody cared. In fact, one of the brand's celebrity endorsers, vinegary old Granny Clampett on "The Beverley Hillbillies," stared right into the television camera and said of her sponsor, "Winston tastes good like a cigarette ought'ta!" Good grief.
In the 1960s, a brand named Benson and Hedges actually trumpeted their disadvantage (they were 100mm long) into a bizarrely popular series of ads featuring B&H smokers getting their too-long ciggies caught in elevator doors, snipped by car windows or being crushed by phones. The thought of a smoker trapped in an elevator because his cigarette was stuck in the mechanical doors was just too much for my young audience. I knew I was losing them.
I tried to put a personal touch on my cigarette stories. I told them about the time in 1974 in Los Angeles that I met diminutive Johnny Roventini, who earned as much as $50,000 a year when, cartoonishly dressed as a bellboy, he'd stride through hotel lobbies hollering: "Call for Phillip Morris!" I chuckled as I recounted that story. They blanched.
I reminisced about "Old Joe," the musty circus camel who, in 1967, paraded down State Street during my college days in Albany, while bare-chested, fez-wearing, young muscle-men dressed in Bobby Brown-balloon pants handed out free packs of Camel cigarettes (I took one).
At this, two young girls in my audience stood up and scowled: "How could you!" and stormed into another room. Gee, I thought it was rather humorous.
Too bad, too, because I didn't get a chance to tell them about "Eve," the Godzillina of cigarettes, clocking in at a whopping, wheeze-tastic 120mm in length. Bra-burning feminists were told they finally "had a cigarette as pretty as you are." And oh, wouldn't I have liked to try explaining laughing at the Old Gold dancing cigarette packs on TV to my young friends. Dancing butts? I didn't dare even go there.
After I finished trying to conjure up these whimsical images of smoking bellboys, tobacco-laden aging circus animals, black-and-blue smoking pugilists and frightening accidents involving cigarettes getting crushed in elevator doorways, I gave up.
"Is there anything else you would like to ask me?" I said softly to the young people gathered around me.
"Yes, Chuck," a bright young lad chirped up. "Tell us about a smoking section on an airplane."
I'll catch you in two ...
'Big Chuck' D'Imperio can be heard weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and Thursday nights from 7-9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his "Oldies Jukebox Show." He invites you to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/bigchuck.