Cigarettes in Old Movies: Did Tobacco companies pay for this?

I watch a lot of TCM and smoking was not only common in the movies but at times seemed a little “forced”.

It got me wondering if the big tobacco companies paid for this via funding Hollywood productions or straight out purchasing product placement.

Does anyone know?


Smoking was a lot more common in those days, so it doesn’t surprise me to see it in old movies. On the other hand, DeBeers used to provide diamonds to movie stars to glamorize its product, so it wouldn’t surprise me if the tobacco companies did something similar.

What is more jarring to me is seeing how common smoking has been in movies made during the past 15 to 20 years. It seems much more common in the movies than it is in real life. I strongly suspect product placement via under-the-table payments.

I’ve noticed the opposite, actually. It’s not that the number of movie characters who smoke divided by the total number of characters in hollywood releases would equal the percentage of the population that smokes (I don’t know if it would or not, but I suspect not). It’s that movie characters are so often the kinds of people who would smoke. Hollywood loves small-time hoods and gangsters, for example, and smoking would be way more prevalent among them.

Maybe I’m just cynical. I suspect payola.

Camel cigarettes in particular was well known for funding TV shows. I’ve heard it said that in Camel-funded shows the god guys all smoked camels, and the bad guys didn’t smoke at all.

eg :

" NBC’s Camel News Caravan (1948) with John Cameron Swayze (who was required by the tobacco company sponsor to have a burning cigarette always visible when he was on camera). "

Payola and cigarettes in movies:

And from this site (warning: pdf):

From here (also pdf):

Interesting debate has developed, but I was talking about in the Golden age, lets say 1930s to 1950s.

I think the product placement is without question now.


The writer Helene Hanff (“84 Charing Cross Road”) tells the story in one of her books (possibly 84CCR, I can’t recall) of writing for an Ellery Queen television series sponsored by a tobacco company. There were a number of restrictions placed on the show by the sponsor as to how tobacco products could be displayed on-screen, how they could and couldn’t be used in the plot and so on. That series was on in 1950, at the tail end of the period described by the OP.

Anecdotal and somewhat off-topic, but perhaps interesting.

I find it interesting that compensating an actor for smoking your brand of cigarettes is payola (bad), while paying them to wear your athletic shoes is a celebrity endorsement (good).

I’m not sure about payola back then, but don’t forget ALOT MORE people smoked back then. So that needs to be factored in as well.

And as for payola nowadays, therre’s other ways around. One way I can think of is to do it through another brand. For example, Phillip Morris owns Kraft. So maybe they make a deal, if you have the actors smoke Marlboros we’ll pay $500,000, but the contract will say the money is for Kraft Macaroni & Cheese product placement and the money will be paid out by Kraft. As far as anyone can tell on paper, the Marlboros where chosen as a coincidence. Maybe that’s what the actor smokes anyways. Maybe the actor doesn’t smoke and that’s what the camera guy had in his pocket on the day of shooting.

Yeah, well, athletic shoes don’t cause cancer.

That, plus it’s legal to advertise athletic shoes, and shoe endorsements are above-board (not under-the-table).

I don’t know about that far back, but one of my links above says Lark payed $350,000 for placement of its cigarettes in a Bond film.

People in the old movies never smoked a recognizable brand, though.

It’s only in about the last 25 years that I’ve noticed name-brand product placement (Superman II???). For such a low-selling brand these days, Lucky Strikes sure seem to make a lot of appearances in movies.

Almost certainly there was no cigarette product placement in the 1930s movies. There was none needed.

Most people did smoke, as noted above. And cigarettes were thought to keep you slim, which to this day remains an incentive for actors to smoke.

In addition, actors have traditionally had the problem of needing something to do with their hands and directors have always needed bits of “business” to get the actors moving naturally so they didn’t appear static on stage or screen. Cigarettes were a natural for this. You can still see this on stage, even in theaters with strict no smoking on premises policies.

We’ve discussed product placement in movies many times and the consensus is that you won’t find it in movies (with a possible couple of exceptions) until after World War II.

First of all, product placement didn’t exist in the 30s and 40s. Probably the first film to use it was the Marx Brothers’ Love Happy, and that was only because the producer had run short on cash and came up with the idea of offering what would now be product placement. It didn’t become standard practice then; What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1960 was still using generic cereal boxes with no brand names. It certainly didn’t become big business until after E.T.

So the smoking shown prior to 1971 (when smoking was banned on TV) was reflecting the characters and society as a whole (I’m not counting TV shows of the 50s, which are different).

As far as cigarette companies paying to show people smoke, I have never heard of anyone coming up with a single documented instance of a cigarette company paying anyone to smoke since 1989, when the FCC ruled it illegal (because movies play on TV, where cigarette advertising is banned).

Actors and directors show people smoking for dramatic reasons: it helps define a character, and it also gives the actor something to do with their hands. It makes the character more interesting.

The myth that tobacco is paying for placement is all over the place, but where are the facts to support it? And I don’t mean “Well, they’re smoking on screen, so that means they were paid.” It’s quite naive to believe that proves anything.

Evidence means: testimony or documentation that indicates an actual cash payment.

Maybe I’m misremembering (I very well maybe) but I seem to recall that in alot of older movies they where somking Lucky Strikes.

Let’s not exaggerate the amount of smoking back then. Now about 25% of adults smoke. The highest percentage of people (in the U.S.) who smoked was in 1970, when about 50% of adults smoked. So it was never quite true that most people smoked, and it was never true that a much larger percentage smoked back then than now.

Smoking was banned on TV in 1971? A certain X-Files supervillain would beg to differ with you. I believe you mean cigarette advertisements.

Payola is undocumented by definition. So of course there are no documented cases. We have to look at circumstantial evidence, like a suspicious prevalence of smoking on-screen.

Some more info about TV shows sponsored by cigarettes. Including The Flintstones :eek: