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 ’50s—this 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:
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]