ASHES TO ASHES

EXCERPT

Pages 75-79

 

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ASHES TO ASHES                                                                       Pages 75-79

 

 

The golden age of malarkey

 

 

UPON SUCCEEDING HIS FATHER as president of American Tobacco at the beginning of 1926, George Washington Hill seemed possessed by a need to show the world that he had not gained his position through nepotism, as if his more than two decades of service to the company had not adequately testified to his abundant skills. At that moment, Chesterfield was outselling Lucky Strike by 50 percent and Camel was 150 percent ahead of it. The new president, at the age of forty-one, vowed to end American’s third-place humiliation. He did so with a single-mindedness indistinguishable from monomania.

George Hill, to put it charitably, was not a lovable man. He had few close friends outside of American Tobacco, and fewer still within it. A poor delegator of responsibility, he ruled like a paranoid dictator, energizing the company through tension and fear of his explosive temperament. He was forever issuing orders, now in a strong staccato, now in a high-pitched whine, and woe be it to whoever failed to execute his demands as prescribed. In some ways a throwback to the rugged individualism Buck Duke had embodied in the company’s early days, Hill brought a truculence and eccentricity to his leadership that made it unnervingly volatile.

There was the matter, for instance, of The Hat. Inside the company’s bastion on the east side of Fifth Avenue at the corner of Eighteenth Street, Hill always wore a hat. Sometimes it was a Stetson sombrero, sometimes a felt fedora, sometimes even a trout fisherman’s rumpled number. The in-house joke, never uttered above a whisper, was that the hat was the boss’s crown, always worn so none would forget who ruled. There were a few other trappings of kingly omnipotence, like the bodyguard patrolling the corridor outside his throne room and the Rolls-Royce perpetually parked close by the palace entrance, on standby to whisk him wherever the royal whim might dictate – usually lunch at the Vanderbilt Hotel near Grand Central Terminal. He was also reported to spit on his desk from time to time, though this may have been no more than a discharge of saliva accompanying an overzealously given command. To the outside world he was a mystery man. He rarely gave speeches or press interviews, avoided stockholders’ meetings, and directed that the company’s annual reports disclose as little as possible about its operations.

 

 

 

 

 

ASHES TO ASHES                                                                       Pages 75-79

 

 

All that said, there was no denying Hill’s obsessive devotion to the task before him. He put in endless hours with his sales executives, for example, trying to perfect his field force’s presentation to retailers on the superiority of American Tobacco products. The marketplace had changed, of course, from the one In the days when Duke barged in on a still embryonic cigarette trade. Now the battle required sales acumen as well as muscle – no easy matter when dealing with competing brands that were practically all the same, save for their packaging and advertising. But Hill insisted on a rote script that would surely have put off all but the most pliant customer if delivered precisely as handed down from the mount.

He was satisfied that in Lucky Strike’s cool green wrapper, he had the most distinctive and attractive package on the market. But Hill’s advertising was not working well enough. Higher expenditures for it helped raise Luckies’ sales about 7.5 percent during Hill’s first year at the helm, but the brand still lost ground to Camel and Chesterfield. Frustrated because he considered himself an advertising virtuoso who often wrote his own copy, Hill had to reexamine his thinking on the subject. It amounted to a simplistic set of assumptions: (1) Your product must have a real or claimable difference from others of its kind, and (2) if it does and you drum it home loud and often enough, it will sell. Missing from such a reductive formula was the belief that consumer persuasion might be more a form of art than an exercise in arm-twisting. Since Hill ate admen for breakfast, it was no easy matter for him to concede he needed talent beyond his own to help Lucky Strike, but having so concluded, he hired the man widely regarded as the best in the business.

Starting in the mail room of Chicago’s Lord & Thomas agency in 1902, Albert D. Lasker rose to its presidency in just eight years, and over the next thirty built such brands as Kleenex, Frigidaire, Sunkist, Pepsodent, and Quaker Oats into household, indeed almost generic, names. Lasker was a shrewd and somewhat cynical foil to George Hill’s evangelical style of hucksterism, but they shared a basic belief in “reason why” advertising that relied more on a product’s selling point of difference than brawny breast-beating. Between them they surveyed how rival cigarette makers were exploiting the themes of mildness and feminism, coded appeals to the fear of smoking irritation, and proceeded to outdo them gaudily.

Step one was to resuscitate the old “Toasted” flimflam, which Lasker’s people now cloaked with the trappings of scientific legitimacy. Research chemists reported that the “toasting” in the Lucky Strike manufacturing process, by heating the leaf to between 260 and 300 degrees, did indeed reduce the nicotine and ammonia content and other acidic irritants, thus producing a “milder” smoke. Milder than what, was left to the imagination – surely than whatever the Aztecs had smoked in pre-Columbian Mexico. That the tobaccos in other leading brands were comparably handled was irrelevant to the Lord & Thomas scheme. “AN ANCIENT PREJUDICE HAS BEEN REMOVED,” claimed the headline in a typical new Lucky Strike ad, which depicted a hand marked “American Intelligence” breaking free from the shackles of ignorance, elaborated thus in the copy:

 

 

 

 

 

ASHES TO ASHES                                                                       Pages 75-79

 

 

YEARS AGO, when cigarettes were made without the aid of modern science, there originated that ancient prejudice against the cigarette. That criticism is no longer justified. LUCKY STRIKE, the finest cigarette you ever smoked, made of the choicest tobaccos, properly aged and skillfully blended – “It’s Toasted.”

“TOASTING,” the most modern step in cigarette manufacturing, removes from LUCKY STRIKE harmful irritants which are present in cigarettes manufactured in the old-fashioned way. . . . LUCKY STRIKE’s extra secret process . . . removes harmful, corrosive ACRIDS (pungent irritants) . . . which in the old-fashioned manufacture of cigarettes cause throat irritation and coughing. . . .

 

To glorify this nonsensical claim, the hoary practice of soliciting celebrity endorsements was given a new twist. Moving beyond opera stars whose vocal cords were presumed uniquely sensitive to smoke irritants, Lasker’s people signed up attractive stage and screen stars like Helen Hayes and Billie Burke, song-belter Al Jolson, heroic aviatrix Amelia Earhart, socialite home decorator Elsie De Wolfe, and then a slew of leading business executives, their egos fanned by public exposure in formal photographic portraits that bore their signatures as if to certify the goodness and unirritability of Lucky Strike. In a masterstroke Lasker then achieved the apotheosis of endorsements by soliciting doctors across America to try Luckies, and if they agreed that the manufacturer’s miraculous, secret heating process made them the least abrasive brand on the market, they would receive five free cartons. The response allowed Hill’s new ads to assert raucously what his competitors only implied in their velvet references to mildness: “20,679 Physicians Say Luckies Are Less Irritating . . . .

The Lasker-Hill team truly hit its stride, though, with the sales proposition that smoking promoted slenderness, a pitch that deftly mated health concerns and female vanity. Who thought up the idea was beside the point, but the company’s version of the famous campaign naturally credited George Hill, who was being chauffeured up Fifth Avenue one day on the way to his marble-pillared home on the Hudson in suburban Westchester when his car paused for a traffic light and he noticed a heavy woman on the corner chewing gum. Alternate versions have this rounded pedestrian wolfing down some sort of fattening refreshment, but all agree that when Hill swung his gaze to a taxicab waiting next to his car headed downtown, he noted that its passenger was a svelte woman sipping at her cigarette holder. Eureka! Already convinced without a morsel of documented evidence that smoking cigarettes was an effective appetite suppressant, Hill got on the phone with Lasker at the earliest possible moment, and soon thereafter the new campaign was exhorting, “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.” After the candy industry protested loudly, took ads out to complain that tobacco was a far worse health peril than candy, and pressured affiliates like the Schrafft’s restaurant chain with its big candy-counter business to ban the sale of Luckies on its premises, the slogan was modified to “When tempted to over-indulge, reach for a Lucky instead.” Lucky Strike sales raced ahead by 5.7 billion units in 1927, by an additional 8.3 billion in 1928 to surpass Chesterfield for the runner-up spot, and with a gain of nearly 10 billion in 1929 pulled within 200 million of Camel’s stagnant sales.

 

 

 

 

 

ASHES TO ASHES                                                                       Pages 75-79

 

 

At this point, American Tobacco lawyers were summoned to the Federal Trade Commission offices, where competitors had charged Hill and Lasker with concocting an ad campaign that amounted to an unfair business practice. The company was kindly invited, in the FTC’s gentlemanly fashion of reprimand, to lay off the implicit claim that smoking cigarettes was a suitable way to diet. The Hill-Lasker response was ingenious. In a new series of ads, the drawn figure of a trim man or woman in the prime of life was shown in an athletic posture – a swimmer toeing the edge of a diving board or already in graceful descent, a horseback rider taking a jump, or a tennis or golf player completing a perfect swing – and hovering immediately adjacent in ghostly silhouette was a blob recognizable as the distended likeness of the original figure, striking a grotesquely similar pose. The ads bore headlines like “Is This You Five Years from Now?” or “Before It’s Too Late” or “Face the Facts,” followed in each case by: “When tempted to over-indulge, reach for a Lucky instead . . . [and] Avoid the Future Shadow.” To hush the FTC, a line in small type across the bottom of the ads read, “We do not say that Luckies reduces [sic] flesh. We do say when tempted to over-indulge, ‘Reach for a Lucky instead.’”

The Lucky Strike campaign of the late ’Twenties had none of the dull dignity of the Camel ads, the smart looks of the Chesterfield ads, or the occasional charm of the Old Gold ads; instead, it was strident, alarmist, numbingly repetitious in words but not graphics, and almost joyfully vulgar. No one would have mistaken these ads for art, but they worked.

To strengthen his hand further, Hill also hired the best publicists money could buy, in the persons of Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays. The latter was particularly adept at reading Hill’s moods and broadening his outlook. When, for instance, the company wanted to do something dramatic in 1929 to counter the taboo against women smoking on the street, Bernays was allowed to engage the services of psychiatrist A. A. Brill, who counseled Hill that cigarettes were symbols of freedom for women as well as “a sublimation of oral eroticism; holding a cigarette in the mouth excites the oral zone,” as Bernays recounted this flash of profundity. Thus, Brill concluded, “Cigarettes, which are equated with men, become torches of freedom.” This last phrase sounded so uplifting that Bernays, with Hill’s blessing, organized a “freedom march” led by ten debutantes and some prominent feminists who strode up six blocks of Fifth Avenue while smoking extravagantly as part of the Easter Sunday parade of finery. The stunt won enough publicity for Hill to seek analyst Brill’s renewed counsel a few years later for a billboard campaign to show women smoking. One favored version presented a woman offering a smoke to two men, but Brill reminded its creators that the cigarette was of course a self-evident phallic symbol, thus the men ought to be offering it to the woman. Such was the motivational research of the day.

 

 

 

 

 

ASHES TO ASHES                                                                       Pages 75-79

 

 

Superintending all this hoopla turned Hill into an obsessive autocrat. When a Luckies ad did not get preferred placement in a magazine or dominate its newspaper page, the Lord & Thomas team on the American Tobacco account might receive a furious tongue-lashing at any hour. Or Hill, who was said to have a radio constantly turned on in every room of his palatial home in order to monitor the Luckies commercials, would protest promptly if he didn’t approve of the way an announcer delivered his paean to the brand. His expensive suits were tailored to conceal half a dozen packs of Luckies, which he used for impromptu sampling. The windows of his limousine were turned into miniature showcases for the brand. And in the garden of his Westchester home, tobacco grew.

During his first five years as head of American Tobacco, George W. Hill boosted the sales of Lucky Strike by 230 percent; by 1930, the brand was more than 8 billion units ahead of Camel. A mad hatter he may have been, but he could sell cigarettes with Buck Duke any day.

 

 

 

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