Lessons for fundraisers from yesterday’s cigarette advertising: instructive campaign images from the 1930s, 40s and 50s

Not so long ago cigarettes were advertised by professional communicators not unlike us, with similar enthusiasms and passion for their product.

Written by
Ken Burnett
April 02, 2011

Specially for SOFII, some potentially useful ideas for fundraisers from the early cigarette ads.

Not so long ago cigarettes were advertised by professional communicators not unlike us, with similar enthusiasms and passion for their product. We can learn from them, so that the Devil doesn’t have all the best tunes. Here’s a summary of just some of the lessons we might learn from the cigarette ads of yesteryear.

  • Fundraisers can learn from how others do things – even from the selling of cigarettes.
  • Judging by the frequent and rigorous tests that they carried out, maybe fundraisers don’t do enough testing nowadays.
  • Perhaps we should put more emphasis on ‘the socially right thing’. Can fundraisers present donors with more evidence that giving to us is, quite simply, the right thing to do? In other words, could we not start a ‘giving is good for you’ campaign?
  • We too could use multiple celebrities.
  • …doctors, teachers, film stars…
  • …and family members too.
  • We could quote supporter numbers like they do – in even greater volumes.
  • We could concentrate on getting the mood right – presenting our ‘atmosphere' more fully and more enticingly.
  • We can show that we really are legal, decent, honest and truthful.
  • We too could make better use of the hero figure in fundraising (see RNLI's exhibit here).

The Chesterfield image above is laden with atmosphere and suggestion. The tiny desert island, the steps up, carved into the rock for the lady, the full moonlight on the shimmering sea, the gathering, menacing clouds – one shaped like a wolf poised to attack, her diaphanous dress, the raffish, casual indifference of the lounge-lizard of a male so obviously keeping his ciggies for himself... and the wonderful headline, oblivious of the dangers of passive smoking.

Great stuff – if a bit scary.

Below, two carefully constructed ads are tested side by side. The cigarette advertisers knew well the value of celebrity endorsements and rigorous testing. They used all of the direct marketer’s tricks of trade to present their product compellingly. Endorsement from doctors was a stroke of sheer brilliance of course, and shows I suppose that everyone has a price.

The vanity of the male and the female are appealed to in equal measure with the next two ads. OK, most people know that, because they suppress appetite, cigarettes can be slimming. But selling this as a health benefit seems a bit of a stretch. And kind to your throat?

Below are some more examples of extremes in celebrity product endorsement. Is there a lesson for fundraisers here? I think so.

The ultimate celebrity endorsement is a bit of a toss-up between Santa Claus and actor (and future US President) Ronald Reagan sending all his pals bumper packs of fags. In the smaller of the two ads the advertiser has inexplicably added a secondary endorsement from a bald-headed, middle-aged individual named as Mr Y.O. Crombie. This curious introduction suggests that at this time in his undistinguished acting career the pulling power of Mr Reagan was waning, so the obscure Mr Crombie was added, in the hope of bumping up response. If anyone can identify the mysterious Mr Crombie, please let SOFII know.

Just about everyone was endorsing cigarette brands back then. I find the scientist smoking while attenpting to use his microscope a curiously unsettling image. But nothing beats the use of the two children eagerly holding up their postcard which says, ‘Happy Birthday Dad. We know your ABC.’ ABC here stands, of course, for ‘Always Buy Chesterfields’.

Unsurprisingly fundraisers always have to be legal, decent, honest and truthful and to follow the advertiser’s code. So this next ad for Kent and its micronite filter has a curious resonance for me. When I was young and foolishly susceptible I smoked Kent for a while, attracted by the allure of their revolutionary micronite filter. Curious, I once tore open the long white filter and poured into my hand the supply of granules of the mysterious micronite that it contained, promised by scientists to safely filter my smoke.

Later, older, less trusting and more sceptical but still foolishly susceptible, I discovered that the main ingredient of the micronite filter was...asbestos. These people not only killed their customers with cigarette smoke they made doubly sure, in the filter tip.

Ah, the perils of advertising. We fundraisers should definitely stick to what we do best.

​The value of thinking differently

This is a bit of a spoof, of course, but clearly the strongest of messages – it’s hard to imagine anything more direct than ‘smoking kills’ – sometimes just don’t work. In this case, rather than giving up, the health authorities need to think a bit differently.

So why not try something like the final image, above?

© Ken Burnett 2011.

About the author: Ken Burnett

Ken Burnett

Ken Burnett is author of Relationship Fundraising and other books including The Zen of Fundraising, (Jossey-Bass Inc, San Francisco, USA). The Tiny Essentials of an Effective Volunteer Board and Storytelling can change the world, both published by The White Lion Press, UK

In 2021, he wrote and published a new book about campaigning fundraising, The essence of Campaigning Fundraising in 52 exhibits and 199 web links.

Ken is also SOFII’s co-founder and a serving trustee.

Recent Articles

Don’t be tone deaf on Ukraine

What is ‘top of mind’ for your donors right now? Claire Axelrad explains why it is always important to address what really matters to your supporters and help them contribute to solving urgent problems. 

Read more

I.G.’s Field Guide to Relationship-Based Fundraising: a free resource for the sector

Discover a useful free guide to maximising your major donor fundraising potential. This guide is available in both English and Spanish.

Read more

How we did it – SOFII’s first foray into challenge event fundraising, intro

In this series SOFII shares how we supported our founder, Ken Burnett, as he took part in The SOFII Foundation’s first-ever challenge event. With no experience in this area of fundraising, we learned as we went along. Find out how we got started in our introduction, here.

Read more

The top five things to know about cryptocurrencies

Could cryptocurrencies represent a new revenue stream for your organisation? This article explains all about them and how they can be good for charities.

Read more

Ghostbusters – three ways to bring prospects back to life

No answer doesn’t mean no. Discover three sets of tips that show a charity’s dedication and persistence can pay huge dividends with corporate partners.

Read more