AMC’s “Mad Men” is Glamorizing Cigarette Smoking

Mad Men has finally pissed me off. I’m concerned that this show is going to renew the “coolness” of smoking. Like it or not, we are all capable of being influenced.

It’s 2010, and I’m sure most people have seen anti-smoking ads and are aware of the dangers, but shows like Mad Men dilute the dangers of smoking and are pushing the same negative message that Big Tobacco has been doing for years—executives at AMC are just using smoking in a different way for their own personal gain (read: network ratings). In 2006, Big Tobacco spent $12.5 billion on advertising and promotions each year. Why spend so much money? Because advertising influences people—no one would start smoking on their own knowing the side-effects, which makes advertising even more important.

There is no doubt that Mad Men has influenced our culture and is bringing ’60s style back into vogue. Companies like Brooks Brothers have created a Mad Men edition suit and Banana Republic has teamed up with Mad Men on a marketing campaign.  Clearly, Mad Men has demonstrated that it has commercial appeal and influene on the market or companies would not pursue partnerships with them.

Why all the concern?  Well, recent studies (and common sense) have shown that smokers are prompted to smoke after watching it in movies. I assume that a TV show would have the same effect as a movie and that there would be research done to prove this, but thankfully, there is almost no smoking on network and cable TV (except for Mad Men)—I really hope that this show doesn’t spur a race to the bottom again.

Because of the links between smoking and cancer, it can be argued that this show has actually endangered the lives of its audience and I question watching it, especially if you are an ex-smoker.  I sure hope the fan who posted “I bought the Mad Men lighters, now I have to start smoking” is joking.  And it was really sad to read in a Denver Post article that Mad Men cast member January Jones had quit smoking, but started again because of the show—who knew that acting was such a dangerous job.  Unfortunately, given the show’s popularity and influence, and the fact that it can be argued that a popular TV show is even more effective than a commercial, I believe that the show is causing smoking rates to increase amongst current smokers and may even influence non-smokers to try it.

It appears that they are smoking cloves or herbal cigarettes on the set, not real cigarettes, though I’ve read that some people are smoking real ones. At first, I bought into the notion that smoking alternative cigarettes was more acceptable, but are they not passing those off as real cigarettes (which has the same effect on our psyche)? A little research then reveals that cloves contain 60-70% tobacco.  Clearly cloves aren’t good for you either.

I think the creators of Mad Men have been reckless.  We don’t live in the ’60s anymore and even if this show is set in this time period, the show’s creators have a responsibility to the public.  I just chatted with Senior Contributor Andrea O’Meara, who is also an Associate Director at the Brattle Theater, about Mad Men.  She’s so cool you would think that she was a smoker, but she’s not. And she agreed saying, “I think they have a responsibility to be more socially conscious than historically accurate” and I wholeheartedly agree. I’m not arguing for “censorship,” I just think the amount of smoking on the show is excessive to the point of glamorizing it—reckless in my eyes.  I know that drinking and fast food chains and a million other things threaten public safety, but all things are not created equal and I’m concerned because smoking has proved to be a killer of mass proportions. If they want to be historically accurate—Don Draper should be diagnosed with lung cancer—that would take some of the glamor out of the show. Doctor’s knew about the link between cigarettes and cancer in the ’50sthis now famous Reader’s digest article has even been mentioned on the show. The show occasionally pokes fun at the link between smoking and cancer, but people find this to be funny (because we all know better now).  Any attempts at highlighting issues with smoking in the show have been completely ineffective—the show’s creators have failed to truly be socially conscious in my eyes.

I give props to iTunes who recently censored Mad Men by Photoshoping a cigarette out of their promotional materials. I think this was a move in the right direction and I support their effort and sense of responsibility.  Apple eventually went back to the original branding (with the cigarette), probably after pressure from AMC and Big Tobacco.  The fact is, tight regulation has cutoff nearly all advertising channels for Tobacco companies (because the product is so dangerous and advertising increases the direct threat to public health).  There are very few avenues for them to pursue—Mad Men is currently their star quarterback, especially since tobacco companies were even recently banned from sponsoring sports teams.

Cigarette manufactures were some of the first companies to advertise on TV and it was common for them to sponsor television shows in the ’50s.  Each company had their brand featured and it was obligatory that they be seen smoking their cigarette during the show, much like the scenes that we see on Mad Men.  This leads me to wonder if there is a direct link and a financial agreement between AMC’s parent company Rainbow Media Holdings and Big Tobacco (e.g., Heineken has paid for strategic product placement on the show, why not Big Tobacco?), especially since Congress passed the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act in 1970, which banned the advertising of cigarettes on television and radio starting on January 2, 1971.  The Virginia Slims brand was the last commercial shown at 11:59 p.m. on January 1 during a break on The Tonight Show.  As far as I’m concerned, January 2, 1971 should have been the last time we should have seen smoking on TV, because smoking on TV in any capacity is advertising.

So I ask, is it not against the law to have cigarette advertising on TV (Cable) if it is written into the plot? The fact is, cigarette product placement (advertising) is appearing on Mad Men.  Take Season 1, Episode 1 for example: Don Draper tries to convince people to convert from Old Gold to Lucky Strikes.  Old Gold and Lucky Strikes (R J. Reynolds) are two current cigarette brands that you can purchase today.  These two brands still benefit from the product placement in the same way that Heineken and Cadillac do.  Maybe Big Tobacco isn’t allowed to pay for the product placement directly, but I’m guessing that there is money changing hands somehow, and regardless, I believe it is illegal for these brand names to appear on TV—this is advertising.  The FCC’s website (which regulates cable television ) posts the following notice regarding cigarette advertising on cable television:

Cigarette Advertising

Advertisements for cigarettes, little cigars and smokeless tobacco are prohibited on any medium of electronic communication subject to the jurisdiction of the Federal Communications Commission. Laws against these types of advertising have criminal penalties and are administered by the U.S. Department of Justice rather than by the Commission.

If you would like to file an unlawful advertising complaint with the FCC, you can do that here.

At the very least, Mad Men’s writers should have to create an imaginary cigarette brand in order to avoid any unintentional advertising that a current cigarette company could directly benefit from, much like the “plot mentions” that Unilever and others are paying big money for.  I would also urge regulators to require Mad Men to air the surgeon general’s tobacco warning before the show.

I wish I could say that I’ve never had a cigarette—I’m just thankful that I’m not addicted. I wish I could report that we as a society have grown-up, but we are still intrigued by shows like Mad Men and I see people light up every day.

Here’s a smoke-free Sesame Street version of Mad Men for us all—back to square one.

by Jen Grygiel

[updated October 7, 2010, first published May 19, 2010]


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  12 comments for “AMC’s “Mad Men” is Glamorizing Cigarette Smoking

  1. Jason
    July 16, 2010 at 12:12 pm

    Wow, have you found any other evidence to support this type of thinking (tobacco industry support of Mad Men?)…after just starting to watch the opening season, it occurred to (sickened) me that this may be the largest cigarette ad ever created (I work in public health)…I hear people say all the time how much they love the show and the show almost seems solely focused on promoting smoking. I noticed that nothing in the opening episode mentioned anything that the tobacco industry wouldn’t be ok with which makes me really wonder who is behind the show…it’s so blatant, that I don’t think others recognize it…

  2. James
    July 27, 2010 at 7:34 am

    I see your point. But I think missing the point. How are you going to tell the story of the 60s without smoking? The thing that makes Mad Men such a hit is its attention to detail of the period. And in that period smoking was everywhere…nightly news, senate hearings, planes…you name it. If anything, Mad Men is a reflection of who we were at that time. Getting upset at Mad Men for smoking is like getting upset at Gone With The Wind for having slaves, the Sound of Music for having Nazi’s, or even Platoon for showing drug use in vietnam.

    I admit that smoking is bad behavior, but to call the creators reckless for displaying our ignorance of tabacco in the 60’s is rather….reckless in and of itself. If we applied that logic to all of our entertainment, we might as well forget the Period Peace genre.

  3. Sharon
    July 29, 2010 at 11:37 pm

    Although I tend to mostly agree with James on this, I disagree with his characterization of Jen’s comments as “reckless.” In the long run, seriously considering all sides of any issue can only help us gain greater insight and sensitivity into their complexities. There’s nothing simple here. Jen makes a valid point, and she says it quite eloquently. But here’s the thing….I LOVE Mad Men and love the period look of it. Sorry Jen.

  4. Anonymous
    March 24, 2011 at 2:36 am

    That’s cause smoking IS glamorous you twit! No amount of health warnings or public service announcements is going to change that. In America Smoking=Cool. Get over it.

  5. Alex
    April 18, 2011 at 7:56 pm

    I totally agree with this article and believe that ‘Lucky Strike (among others)’ definitely have a BIG deal with ‘Mad Men’ here… and possibly are behind the entire thing. The writers could easilly have referenced smoking with an invented brand and not one that you can buy in real life. As a reformed nicotine addict I was reluctant to admit that Mad Men is glamourizing smoking, it was actually making me feel ill at the thought of how rough they must feel smoking with such regularity, but after discussions with my girlfriend I conclude that seeing glamourous people smoking will subconsciously glamourise smoking. It is not acceptable that this is aloud to go through the net in todays society. Smoking makes you ugly… in the end and that’s what they should be showing us, not this bullshit to lure people into the addiction and keep lining the pockets of ‘Big Tobacco’. Fucked up world.

  6. Stuart Mathieson
    April 22, 2011 at 10:03 pm

    I totally agree about “Mad Men”. The same can be said about “Outrageous Fortune” the New Zealand TV “Portia faces life” style serial aimed at women who promote smoking through their social contacts and offspring.

    None of this is news. A NZ Company Secretary publication featured the annual report of Rothmans New Zealand in the 1990s. It described the Tobacco’s response to legislating curbing their activities by the policy of “placement” where product features in film and TV drama.

    It is fairly obvious period film and TV dramas are a way of promoting/normalising smoking under the guise of artistic verisimilitude.

  7. Claire
    May 3, 2011 at 2:55 pm

    I’m a big fan of Mad Men and have a different perspective on the smoking issue by virtue of living outside the US, in France where smoking is much more widespread at all age levels. I get the impression that the main audience for MM is an adult one whereas it’s in the teen years that most people start smoking. We sent our sixteen year old daughter to live with my brother in the US and go to high school for reasons not related to smoking, but one good side effect of her being here is that she has been able to quit because hardly any teens here smoke cigarettes. (Alcohol and pot is another matter.) It was not TV characters who got her started on cigarettes in the first place. All her friends in France smoke, and when she wanted to quit she found it impossible. I can’t imagine that more than a minuscule minority of adults who have never smoked would take it up as a result of watching Mad Men. I don’t believe it’s right to “blame” Mad Men for any former smokers who have succumbed anymore than MM can be held responsible for any recovering alcoholics who fell off the wagon on account of watching it.

    As for the suggestion they should have used a fictitious cigarette brand, wouldn’t *that* be a glaring anomaly in a show with such a focus on historical accuracy!

  8. Sienna
    May 27, 2011 at 1:02 pm

    So you are implying that we are all idiots who do everything through televised influence – monkey see monkey do style. What ever happened to self control and will power I wonder… I love the show, but I never took up drinking or smoking during or after an episode because it looks cool to do so in the show. (not a smoker or a drinker to begin with.) Nor did I start dressing like it’s the 60’s just because it “looks cool”.
    Do you pick up a mop and start mopping your kitchen uncontrollably every time you see a Swiffer commercial? The entire television/entertainment industry is one big ad campaign for corporations that want to sell merchandise. It’s not a conspiracy. It’s reality. Do you feel like taking it down to the streets and start shooting people every time you see a film that glamorizes gangsters and street thugs? Do you feel like buying the entire Chanel store after you watch a runway show? Do you do what others tell you all the time? If you do, you might want to consult a psychiatrist for your condition.
    Cigarettes are not popular because of this one television show or any other show for that matter. The government allows tobacco companies to manufacture the cancer sticks because tobacco companies are one of the top 3 biggest lobbyists/financial political contributors in Washington DC (along with pharma and defense contractors). People smoke because governments across the globe allow tobacco companies to produce the deathly merchandise.
    Entertainment does not need to set positive examples, nor do celebrities. If you are unable to decide for yourself matters that concern your life/health/choices, maybe you shouldn’t watch television, or read newspapers or talk to other people…

  9. Berj
    March 23, 2012 at 3:33 am

    Well said Sienna, well said indeed.

  10. Kirk
    April 4, 2012 at 5:44 pm

    I hate people like you. I don’t even care about the time this show is set in. People should have a right to put whatever they want in their shows. I believe in freedom.

    Who cares if some idiots start smoking just because of a TV show? Those people are idiots. Just let them die.

    Besides, smoking is one of the least bad things in television these days. Why don’t you people ever worry about sex or violence?

    And for God’s sake, Don was only 40 when you wrote this article. I know smokers much older than that who have not been diagnosed with lung cancer. And wasn’t Roger diagnosed with lung cancer a little while ago?

    Matthew Weiner and his writers are entitled to portray whatever they want in their shows. Stop caring about all of America’s wonderful idiots dying and stop impairing freedom of expression, you un-American cretin.

  11. miran
    April 15, 2012 at 10:02 pm

    I agree. In “Mad Men” everybody was smoking at every imaginable occasion. Really. When I thought “if this was sponsored by a cigarette company they could let these three guys smoke now”, and wow, they did. And that happened in every room and at every occasion I could think of. I’m not a smoker, but I was curious how they would handle the topic about the side effects of smoking and so on.
    BUT, think about it. It is the best way to get people smoking. They can’t put their advertising on TV or in Sports anymore, they can’t put in movies. But what does that matter, TV Series are far more efficient. The episodes are cheaper to produce. You get many people to watch them. They run regular for months and over years. The people won’t stop watching, because they want to know how the story goes on or because they love the dialogues or the setting. A movie would be seen maybe once or twice, an ad would be seen once, then you ignore it. But a TV Series will be seen every week, or more often, for over 40 minutes. Even people like me, who try to stay critically add to their benefit. Because we think about cigarettes and smoking, which we wouldn’t have if we hadn’t watched the series in the first place. And while doing that we only consider their arguments (pro and contra). I didn’t think this all would affect me when I was only analyzing the series, but actually, it did. I started to think I should smoke a cigarette while watching this. That it would be the appropriate thing to do and it would add to the flair. That was the point where I decided not to go on watching “Mad Men”. If it doesn’t affect you, then that’s good for you, but I believe this case is pretty rare.

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