Tobacco Advertising

“I’m not saying companies aren’t smart.  Some, like the tobacco companies, are scarily smart.” – Martin Lindstrom

“Tobacco is a disease that is transmitted. Advertising is the agent of transmission.” – Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, Director-General for WHO (World Health Organization)

Subliminal ideas, imagery, and words have been placed in many print advertisements for cigarettes.

According to the WHO Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic:

“To sell a product that kills up to half of all its users requires extraordinary marketing savvy. Tobacco manufacturers are some of the best marketers in the world.” (1)

“Marketing and promotion increase tobacco sales and therefore contribute towards killing more people by encouraging current smokers to smoke more and decreasing their motivation to quit.” (2)

“Marketing also urges potential users—and young people specifically—to try tobacco and become long-term customers.” (3)

Advertisers for tobacco focus on anxiety, cravings, and addiction in order to increase cigarette sales.  Interestingly, advertisers also focus on the subject of death with designated cigarette advertisements.  


Advertisers for tobacco know that many people smoke cigarettes in order to temporarily alleviate anxiety.  On a physiological level, many smokers smoke cigarettes to the point where anxiety disorders surface.  Therefore, what is originally used to alleviate anxiety can later become what creates anxiety disorders for many smokers.
Advertisers of tobacco know that feelings of anxiousness will create the situation where people will smoke to alleviate the anxiety.

According to authors Thomas O'Guinn, Chris Allen, and Richard J. Semenik:

“People try to avoid feeling anxious.  They try to minimize, moderate, and alleviate anxiety.” (4)

“Often people will buy or consume things to help them in their continuing struggle with anxiety.” (5)

“Advertisers realize this and use many settings to demonstrate why you should be anxious and what you can do to alleviate the anxiety.” (6)

Advertisers pursue a change behavior-by-inducing-anxiety objective by playing on consumer anxieties.  The ads work through both thought and feelings.” (7)

According to a cigarette brand family segmentation study that was conducted by R.J Reynolds Tobacco Company:

“Many smokers use cigarettes when they are trying to deal with a negative emotional state.  For example, smoking often occurs in those situations when smokers are trying to gain self-control, to calm down, to cope with stress, or to reach a state of well being and contentment. 
Two aspects of smoking contribute to the ability of a cigarette to provide relief from an unpleasant emotion. Firstly, a distancing function enables the smoker to remove himself from the emotion-provoking situation momentarily: to escape and gain the opportunity to collect himself. Secondly, smoking a cigarette acts as a reassuring reminder of normality -"what could be more normal than smoking a cigarette?”- and thus provide a symbol that can be grasped during the return to a base emotional state.  Again, all smokers smoke in these situations. However, the use of cigarettes in the context of anxiety is particularly prevalent among female smokers.” (8)


Of the more than 60 million smokers in the U.S., 15 to 25% have had at least one anxiety disorder in their lifetime. (9)

“Similar to depression and schizophrenia, epidemiologic research shows that anxiety disorders are more common amongst smokers than non-smokers. In fact, anxiety disorders may be as prevalent amongst smokers as is depression. Moreover, anxiety may be more strongly associated with smoking than depression and anxiety disorders may promote the transition from smoking to nicotine dependence. Finally, some research suggests that anxiety disorders may reduce quitting success.” (10)

“Heavy cigarette smoking (greater than or equal to 20 cigarettes/day) during adolescence was associated with higher risk of agoraphobia, generalized anxiety disorder, and panic disorder during early adulthood.” (11)

It is estimated that persons with a diagnosable mental disorder consume nearly half of all cigarettes smoked in the United States. (12)

Approximately 55% of smokers have met the criteria for a psychiatric disorder.  Also, "these smokers consume a disproportionately large number of cigarettes.” (13)

“Smokers are more likely to have a psychiatric disorder than are non-smokers and conversely, individuals with a psychiatric disorder are almost twice as likely to be smokers as individuals without a psychiatric disorder.” (14)

“As a group, smokers with psychiatric disorders consume a disproportionate number of cigarettes and some data show that smokers with psychiatric disorders are less likely to quit smoking than are other smokers.” (15)

There are many cigarette smokers who are unable to quit smoking. “An important subset of refractory smokers are those with psychiatric disorders.” (16)

According to Dr. Cynthia S. Pomerleau, of the University of Michigan Substance Abuse Research Center and Nicotine Research Laboratory, “many if not most hard-core smokers are suffering from an underlying psychiatric problem that nicotine may help to ameliorate.” (17)


According to global marketing guru Martin Lindstrom:

“Now I’m going to let you in on the secret ingredient behind some of the most successful food, beverage, and cosmetics brands out there:  the element of craving.  It’s a word that the industry finds hard to admit that it strives for, yet most hit brands and products would be nothing without it.  The truth is, no matter how much we believe we’re in control, when it comes to craving, we are often powerless in the face of these triggers.  Companies know this, which is why they deliberately imbue their packaging and advertising with “unconscious signals”—cues that lie just beneath our conscious awareness, right at those very moments when cravings are liable to strike.” (18)

“Still, do companies and advertisers have a hand in creating these addictions to their products?  Obviously, they can’t penetrate our brains and alter the DNA.  But while they may not be able to directly manufacture addiction…you better believe that they do have a lot of clever tricks and tools for nudging us in that direction and spurring addictions along.” (19)

“Sometimes they [companies] use subconscious emotional or psychological cues, like when cigarette companies imbue their ads and packaging with subtle imagery meant to induce craving.  Other times they actually make their products physically addictive, the way cigarette companies manufacture tobacco products to be chemically addictive.” (20) 


According to author Amanda Chan:

“The euphoria begins with the first drag.  Inhaling the smoke from a cigarette sends nicotine molecules zooming up into the brain within seconds. The nicotine grabs hold of receptors on brain cells, releasing a wave of dopamine and other chemicals that bring feelings of pleasure and comfort.” (21)

“But fixing a smoker's dopamine craving isn't likely to make quitting a breeze. Smoking also triggers a release of other molecules in the brain that make you feel good, including chemicals called endogenous opioids that heighten positive feelings and subdue negative ones” (22)

Megan Piper, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin Center for Tobacco Research and Intervention, states, “Brain cells sprout more nicotine receptors the more you are exposed to it – that's precisely why quitting smoking is so difficult.” (23)

“Some say quitting smoking is even harder than quitting illicit drugs like heroin, she said, though that hasn't been proven. But it's possible, because the nicotine from cigarettes reaches the brain in six to 10 seconds – "that’s a fast hit," Piper said, and an immediate reward. With heroin, which is injected, it takes longer to feel the effect.” (24)

Dr. Cynthia S. Pomerleau notes “that nicotine is a powerful drug known to have an unusual mix of effects on the brain. It influences several major brain chemicals that send messages from one neuron to another, including norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin.” (25)

Ovide Pomerleau, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan Medical School states that, “If cigarette smoking is sustained, nicotine addiction can occur in a few days to a few months,” he adds. “The finding of a genetic association with pleasurable early smoking experiences may help explain how people get addicted — and, of course, once addicted, many will keep smoking for the rest of their lives." (26)


Death imagery has been placed in many cigarette ads at a subliminal level.  By focusing on subconscious anxiety concerning mortality, this imagery has been deliberately placed in certain ads in order to increase the sales of cigarettes.

Christy Turlington states, “Most of us harbour a significant amount of subconscious fear about death, and act out of this fear in our daily lives.” (27)

Ana Drobot states: “Yet Freud also specifies that fear of death 'dominates us oftener than we know'.” (28)

A subconscious (not a conscious) death wish exists in all human beings.  This death wish operates mostly in the subconscious and unconscious mind.

A psychoanalysis definition of a death wish is “an unconscious urge to die.” (29)  Another definition of a death wish is “A desire, especially subconscious, for the death of oneself.” (30)

According to Shlomo Agami, “The urge toward self destruction and death, or in other words, the wish to die, exists in all human beings.” (31)

Sam Keen wrote:

“The basic motivation for human behavior is our biological need to control our basic anxiety, to deny the terror of death.  Since the terror of death is so overwhelming we conspire to keep it unconscious.”  (32)

James Arndt, who is a psychologist at the University of Missouri, conducted a study where students who were smokers completed questionnaires designed to induce thoughts of their own mortality.  Every student’s smoking intensity (volume, flow, and duration) was measured.  Findings in this study showed that “heavy smoking students reacted to thoughts of death by taking even heavier drags on their cigarettes.” (33) James Arndt suggested that “the students might have been subconsciously attempting to dispel a negative mood with an enjoyable activity.” (34)

This “finding suggests that the psychology involved in smoking and thinking about death is more complicated than previously assumed. Therefore, graphic warning labels on cigarettes might not have the intended effect on everyone who sees them.” (35)

When people are faced with their own mortality, anxiety increases, especially on a subconscious level.  This is why graphic cigarette warning labels will only increase cigarette sales.  When people see imagery of cigarette induced ailments, they are reminded of their own mortality.

A study, led by Jochim Hansen of New York University and the University of Basel, was conducted pertaining to the effectiveness of warnings on cigarette labels.  Here are some of the results of this study: 

“Among the students for whom smoking was important to their self-esteem, those who looked at packets with death-related warnings subsequently reported more positive attitudes to smoking compared with those who looked at death-neutral packets.” (36)

“In other words, for smokers who derive a self-esteem boost from smoking - perhaps they see it as a key part of their identity or they think it makes them look cool - a death-related cigarette packet warning can have the ironic effect of making them want to smoke more, so as to buffer themselves against the depressing reminder of their own mortality.” (37)

The study showed “that cigarette packets with death-related warnings were not effective and even caused more positive smoking attitudes.” (38)

The researchers concluded “that considering death may make some people smoke.” (39)

Recently, the largest neuromarketing experiment in history was conducted using two of the most sophisticated brain-scanning instruments in the world, fMRI (Functional magnetic resonance imaging) and SST (steady-state topography-an advanced version of the electroencephalograph).

This study was funded by eight multinational companies and cost around $7 million.

Dr. Gemma Calvert, the leader of the research team for the large neuromarketing experiment, discovered the following:

1)   “Cigarette warnings—whether they informed smokers they were at risk of contracting emphysema, heart disease, or a host of other chronic conditions—had in fact stimulated an area of the smoker’s brain called the nucleus accumbens, otherwise known as “the craving spot."  This region is a chain-link of specialized neurons that lights up when the body desires something…” (40)

2)   “In short, the fMRI results showed that cigarette warning labels not only failed to deter smoking, but by activating the nucleus accumbens, it appeared they actually encouraged smokers to light up.” (41)

This explains why, in 2006, consumers worldwide smoked 5,753 billion cigarettes  “despite worldwide tobacco advertising bans, outspoken and frequent health warnings from the medical community, and massive government investment in antismoking campaigns” (42)

The World Health Organization (WHO) promotes the use of tobacco health warnings to warn people about the harmful effects of tobacco use.

“Article 11 of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) requires Parties to the Convention to implement large, rotating health warnings on all tobacco product packaging and labeling. Pictorial health warnings on tobacco packages are a cost-effective means to increase public awareness about the dangers of tobacco use. Guidelines for Article 11 of the WHO FCTC recommend that Parties should mandate full colour pictures or pictograms, in their packaging and labeling requirements.” (43)

According to the WHO Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic:

“The data are impressive.  More than 1 billion people now live in countries with legislation that required large graphic health warnings on every cigarette pack sold in their countries…Nevertheless, the tobacco epidemic continues to expand because of ongoing tobacco industry marketing, population growth in countires where tobacco use is increasing, and the extreme addictiveness of tobacco that makes it difficult for people to stop smoking once they start.” (44)

If the findings are true, concerning the increase in smoking due to warning labels, then the WHO worldwide implementation of warning labels on tobacco packaging will increase the very global tobacco epidemic that they are working to eliminate.

Subliminal death imagery in advertising has the same effect on the consumers of tobacco that the warning labels on tobacco products have.


Approximately 15 billion cigarettes are sold daily.  (45)

10 million cigarettes are sold every minute. (46)

“With annual sales of 1.8 trillion cigarettes, the Chinese monopoly is responsible for roughly one-third of all cigarettes being smoked on earth today” (47)

Tobacco kills up to half of its users (48)

Cigarette smoking causes about 1 out of every 5 deaths in the United States each year. (49)

In the United States, there are 443,000 annual deaths due to smoking. (50)

30% of all cancer deaths are directly associated with cigarette smoking. (51)

In “the United States the annual direct costs to the economy attributable to smoking were in excess of $298 billion, including workplace productivity costs of $67.5 billion, premature death losses of $117 billion, and direct medical expenditures of $116 billion.” (52)

Wordwide, approximately one person dies every six seconds due to tobacco (one in 10 adult deaths). (53)

The annual death toll could rise to more than eight million by 2030. (54)

Nearly 80% of the world's one billion smokers live in low- and middle-income countries. (55)


What is the stance of cigarette companies concerning heavy consumers of cigarettes?  Here is excerpt from a R.J. Reynolds marketing report:

“Heavy smokers tend to manifest to a still greater degree those characteristics that distinguish smokers from the rest of the general population. This means that marketing programs which key on characteristics of smokers (as opposed to universal wants) will be particularly relevant to heavy users who are valuable customers in terms of volume.” (56)


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