The Pop History Dig

“Wheaties & Sport”
1930s

Lou Gehrig of the New York Yankees, first to appear on a "Wheaties" cereal package, back of box, 1934.
Lou Gehrig of the New York Yankees, first to appear on a "Wheaties" cereal package, back of box, 1934.
     Wheaties is the name of a breakfast cereal created in 1922 after a mixture of wheat bran accidentally spilled onto a hot stove producing some crispy flakes.  The fortunate accident occurred at a Minnesota company named Washburn Crosby, later known as General Mills.  A wheat-flake cereal was soon fashioned and sold as “Washburn’s Gold Medal Whole Wheat Flakes.”  After a time, the cereal was more simply named Wheaties.  Early on in Wheaties’ marketing, the cereal began an association with sports, and baseball in particular.  In 1927, Wheaties advertising appeared on a billboard at Nicollet Park, then home the Minneapolis Millers minor league baseball team.  The first slogan for the cereal, credited to Minneapolis ad man, Knox Reeves, became: “Wheaties – The Breakfast of Champions.”

     Wheaties’ marketing was soon bolstered by hiring professional sports stars to lend their names and likenesses to the cereal’s adver- tising campaigns.  By 1934, the General Mills Company began including pictures of athletes on its Wheaties cereal boxes to help sell the cereal and establish Wheaties as a brand name.  In 1934, the first sports figures to appear on the Wheaties cereal box were baseball stars – Lou Gehrig of the New York Yankees, as shown above, and Jimmie Fox of the Philadelphia Athletics, shown later below.  They were followed that year by female aviator Elinor Smith and tennis star Ellsworth Vines.  Initially, and for nearly the next twenty years, the athletes were depicted on the back of the Wheaties box or on its side panels.  Athletes appearing on the front of the Wheaties box would not begin until the 1950s.

Aviatrix, Elinor Smith, 1934.
Aviatrix, Elinor Smith, 1934.
     In the 1930s, the Wheaties athletes also pitched the product in radio “testimonials,” as product endorsements were then called, and also in magazine and other print ads.  Radio in the 1930s was the primary media outlet and became the central focus of General Mills’ and Wheaties’ advertising – especially in connection with baseball.  Wheaties-sponsored baseball broadcasts began from one radio station in Minneapolis, Minnesota, initially covering the minor league Minneapolis Millers on station WCCO.  Wheaties radio sponsorship of baseball games soon expanded to 95 other radio stations and professional teams throughout the country.

     Wheaties found that its sales climbed through the 1930s, helped by its cereal-box endorsements as well as its radio and magazine ads.  Wheaties had a range of sports stars appear in its endorsements, including: Jack Dempsey and Max Baer in boxing; Johnny Weismuller, the famous Olympic swimmer; Babe Didrikson, the female Olympic track and field star and later golf pro; football players Red Grange and Bronko Nagurski; and also pro golfers Sam Snead and Ben Hogan. Wheaties came to have such a strong presence in baseball that 46 of the 51 players selected for the 1939 All-Star Game had endorsed the cereal.  But baseball became a mainstay of Wheaties in the 1930s and a key part of the “Breakfast of Champions” broadcast package.  Among the endorsing stars through the 1930s were: Joe Cronin, Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller, Lefty Grove, Carl Hubbell, Jimmie Foxx, Mel Ott, and Babe Ruth.  Wheaties came to have such a strong presence in baseball that 46 of the 51 players selected for the 1939 Major League All-Star Game had endorsed Wheaties.  On the breakfast table, Wheaties cereal boxes began including brief profiles of the athletes, showing them in action shots, or with short stories about them. Some offered cut out “cards” from the back of the package (see below).  Others featured a famous player showing his pitching or batting technique.  Mel Ott (1909 – 1958), for example, was shown offering bunting tips in one 1937 package illustration.

Mel Ott in 1937 offering a tutorial on the art of bunting on a Wheaties cereal back-of-box.
Mel Ott in 1937 offering a tutorial on the art of bunting on a Wheaties cereal back-of-box.
1937 Wheaties' magazine ad with Carl Hubbell’s endorsement.
1937 Wheaties' magazine ad with Carl Hubbell’s endorsement.
Jimmie Foxx of the Philadelphia Athletics on a 1934 Wheaties box. He won the American League Triple Crown batting title in 1933.
Jimmie Foxx of the Philadelphia Athletics on a 1934 Wheaties box. He won the American League Triple Crown batting title in 1933.

     Ott was an outfielder who played his entire career with the New York Giants.  At 5′ 9″and 170 lbs, Ott was a surprisingly powerful hitter who would accumulate some 511 home runs in his career.  By 1937 when he appeared in Wheaties ads, he had been the National League home run leader in 1932, 1934, and 1936.  In each of 1934, 1935 and 1936 he had more 100 runs batted in, compiling a batting average greater than .320 each year as well.  He would become a twelve-time All Star in his career and play in three World Series.  Ott is shown on the 1937 Wheaties package back at right offering tips on bunting.

     In the Carl Hubbell Wheaties endorsement below that appeared in a 1937 Wheaties magazine ad, Hubbell, a pitcher for the New York Giants, is introduced as the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1936.  He is quoted as saying “Breakfast of Champions is the tops.”  To the right of Hubbell’s head is a short paragraph in small print encouraging kids to collect the photos of the players shown in the advertisement.  It reads: “Boys! Girls! Action Photos of Your Favorite Champions Now On Backs of Wheaties Packages.  Start Your Set Now!”  Below Hubbell is a paragraph encouraging the reader to try a bowl of Wheaties:

Have You Tried Wheaties?

“Wherever you are: at home, restaurant or dining car – ask for Wheaties.  Big gold-brown toasted flakes of whole wheat!  So delicious they have become America’s fastest growing cereal.  Remember – Wheaties are whole wheat.  Note statement on the package.  ‘Wheat has always been the basic cereal food of most Americans.  It furnishes over 50% more body building protein and a greater percentage of minerals and such grains as corn and rice.”

“Try Wheaties.  Order by name W-h-e-a-t-i-e-s today.  Tomorrow join Carl Hubbell and other Champions in a ‘Breakfast of Champions’– Wheaties with plenty of milk or cream and sugar – and some kind of fruit.  With berries or peaches – Delicious!”

“Wheaties and the advertising claims made for them are accepted by the Council on Foods of the American Medical Association.”

     At the bottom of the Carl Hubbell advertisement, along the margin, are small photos of nine other athletes, outlined in different colored stars, who by then had also endorsed “the breakfast of Champions.”  These include: Lefty Grove, a pitcher for the Philadelphia Athletics and the Boston Red Sox; Jimmie Foxx, the famous hitter who also played with the Philadelphia Athletics and Boston Red Sox; Mel Ott of the New York Giants; Lefty Gomez, a pitcher with the New York Yankees, and others.  Jimmie Foxx — who had already been on the Wheaties package in 1934 –  had hit  58 homers in 1932 and might well have broken Babe Ruth’s record that year but fell off a ladder at home and missed the last few games that season.  In 1933, he took the American League Triple Crown with 48 homers, 163 RBI and .356 batting average.



“Lou Gehrig Says…”
1935

     Lou Gehrig already had the distinction of being the first athlete to appear on a Wheaties box in 1934, as shown in the first photo at the beginning of this article.  Gehrig won the Triple Crown batting title in 1934 with a .363 batting average, 49 home runs, and 165 RBIs. The next year, General Mills continued to use Gehrig in advertising.  A full-page Wheaties magazine ad in 1935  has “The Iron Man of Baseball” extolling the virtues of the cereal along with his photograph and testimonial. In the ad, Gehrig is quoted as follows:

Portion of a larger 1935 "Wheaties" magazine ad featuring a testimonial from baseball great Lou Gehrig.
Portion of a larger 1935 "Wheaties" magazine ad featuring a testimonial from baseball great Lou Gehrig.

     “I believe any man who wants to go places in any sport has to keep in good physical shape.  I always watch my eating pretty closely and make it a point to put away a good breakfast in the morning.  But I want my food to taste good, too.  And there’s nothing better than a big bowl of Wheaties with plenty of milk or cream and sugar.  That’s a ‘Breakfast of Cham- pions’ you want to try.  You’ll be glad you did.  Because Wheaties sure taste great!”

     During his career, Lou Gehrig complied a number of impressive hitting feats, including, for example: 23 career grand slams; 73 three-run homers; and 166 two-run homers.  Gehrig’s productive “men-on-base” home-run hitting gives him one of the highest average RBIs per homer among all-time leading home run hitters. 


Joe Medwick, batting champ, 1937.
Joe Medwick, batting champ, 1937.
Batting Champ

     In 1937, Joe Medwick was shown on a Wheaties box, then billed as “Baseball’s Leading Batter.”  Medwick (1911-1975) was an outfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals during the “Gashouse Gang” era of the 1930s.  In 1937, he won the National League Triple Crown with 31 home runs, 154 RBIs, and a .374 batting average.  He was also the National League’s Most Valuable Player that year.  A ten-time All-Star, Medwick played for 17 years, finishing with a lifetime .324 batting average.  Like the Carl Hubbell Wheaties ad shown above earlier, the Medwick back-of-package ad on the Wheaties box at right includes his personal testimonial and also smaller photos of other endorsing players at the bottom of the ad — this group including six other baseball stars: Joe DiMaggio of the New York Yankees, Mel Ott of the New York Giants, Bob Feller of the Cleveland Indians, Lefty Grove, by then with the Boston Red Sox, Hank Greenberg of the Detroit Tigers, and Carl Hubbell of the New York Giants.


Baseball great Joe DiMaggio is featured in this 1938 Wheaties magazine ad, along with three other notable American athletes.
Baseball great Joe DiMaggio is featured in this 1938 Wheaties magazine ad, along with three other notable American athletes.
Joe DiMaggio

     In 1938, Joe DiMaggio, then a hitting and fielding sensation with the New York Yankees, was also a Wheaties endorser.  DiMaggio appeared on the backs of Wheaties boxes and also in at least two magazine advertisements, one by himself, and a second, shown at left, where three other Wheaties celebrity athletes shared the spotlight.  This ad features “Joltin’ Joe” taking a full swing with his bat while extolling the virtues of a Wheaties breakfast.

     DiMaggio made his major league debut with the New York Yankees on May 3, 1936, batting ahead of Lou Gehrig.  The Yankees at the time had not been to the World Series since 1932.  DiMaggio helped lead the Yankees to four consecutive World Series titles, 1936 through 1939.  In the 1937 season, for example, DiMaggio hit 46 home runs, had 167 runs batted in, and had a batting average of .346.  In all DiMaggio led the Yankees to nine titles in 13 years.

     The Wheaties advertisement with DiMaggio at left also includes four smaller photos and one inset photo of Joe crossing home plate after hitting a home run.  Also shown in this ad are tennis player Ellsworth Vines (1911-1994), and Olympic swimmer Lenore Kight Wingard (1911-2000).  Wingard who won a silver medal in the 400 meter freestyle event at the 1932 Olympics and a bronze medal in the 400 meter freestyle event at the 1936 Olympics.  The third athlete shown is Joanna de Tuscan (1908-2003), of fencing fame, also in the 1936 Olympics.


“Dutch” Reagan & Wheaties
1930s

"Dutch" Reagan, radio man.
"Dutch" Reagan, radio man.
     In the 1930s, Wheaties-sponsored radio broadcasts of baseball games began spreading throughout the Midwest, expanding from Minneapolis to some 95 other radio stations and teams.  Des Moines, Iowa was one of towns where Wheaties became a sponsor.  At Des Moines radio station WHO, a sports broadcaster known as “Dutch” Reagan gave the play-by-play.  Between 1933 and 1937 Reagan broadcast a wide variety of sporting events from that station, including Iowa football games, swimming meets, and the Drake University Relays.  But it was Reagan’s delayed and recreated play-by-play broadcasts of major league baseball games, especially those of the Chicago Cubs, for which he became best known.

"Dutch" Reagan in action.
"Dutch" Reagan in action.
     In a round about way, Reagan owed at least some of his subsequent film and political careers to Wheaties.  In 1937, Reagan was voted the most popular Wheaties announcer in the country and was awarded a trip to the Cubs’ spring training camp in California.  While Reagan was in California, he took a Warner Brothers screen test and subsequently became a film star and later, a TV host.  He than parlayed his film and TV career into politics, becoming governor of California in 1966 and President in 1980 and 1984.


Wheaties “baseball card” cut-out on package back, late 1930s.
Wheaties “baseball card” cut-out on package back, late 1930s.
Baseball “Cards”

     In the1930s, Wheaties also issued a back-of-package design for cut-out baseball “cards.”  Or more exactly, the backs of the Wheaties cereal boxes were the “cards.”  The Wheaties box back panels often displayed a photo or artist’s rendering of the player, along with statistics and/or a short story about his play.  These panels were intended to be hand cut from the boxes by youngsters.  Some of these “cards” were issued as sets or in a series, the earliest dating to 1934-1935.  In 1938, Wheaties issued a sixteen-card “set” that is known to some collectors today as the “Biggest Thrill of Baseball” series — or the “Series 10″ set.  These cards are scarce today, and only a very few are found uncut from their original boxes.  Shown at right is the Joe DiMaggio card, No. 11 in the series, and in this case, still un-cut from its box.  This copy of the DiMaggio Wheaties “card,” according to Robert Edwards Auctions, sold for $580.00 sometime in 2005.

"100 Years of Baseball."
"100 Years of Baseball."
     In 1939, another baseball-related promotion that General Mills used with its Wheaties packages were back-of-the-box short stories from its “100 Years of Baseball:1839-1939″ series.  The back of box shown here at left is from a small reprint and includes a story about introduction of the first baseball gloves to the game, as players used their bare hands prior to that.  This particular story uses the headline “1869: Crowd Boos First Baseball Glove,” indicating popular objection to the “new technology.”  The back panel of the Wheaties box also encouraged its readers to collect the entire series of the “100 Years of Baseball” stories: “Get 8 of these Historical Souvenirs,” said part of the message.

“Wheaties Champions”
1930s

1934
Lou Gehrig, Baseball
Jimmie Foxx, Baseball
Elinor Smith, Aviator
Ellsworth Vines, Tennis
1935
Dizzy Dean, Baseball
Babe Didrikson, Athlete
1936
Kit Klein, Speedskating
Wilbur Shaw, Auto Racing
1937
Earl Averill, Baseball
Lefty Gomez, Baseball
Bronko Nagurski, Football
Mel Ott, Baseball
Cecil Travis, Baseball
Harold Trosky, Baseball
1938
Bob Feller, Baseball
Charles Gehringer, Baseball
Lefty Grove, Baseball
Billy Herman, Baseball
Carl Hubbell, Baseball
1939
Leo Durocher, Baseball
Johnny Mize, Baseball

     Wheaties also issued at least ten series of its baseball cards in the 1930s.  And Wheaties not only featured baseball players in its 1930s marketing, but also other athletes, some of whom have already been mentioned – Elinor Smith, Ellsworth Vines, and Babe Didrikson.  In addition to these, “Wheaties Champions” from other sports in the 1930s also included, for example, Kit Klein in speedskating, Bronko Nagurski in football, and Wilbur Chaw from auto racing.

     The 1930s, of course, were only the beginning for General Mills’ marketing of Wheaties with the help of sports celebrities.  The practice would become much more sophisticated in the years ahead, as General Mills would continue to woo the nation’s top athletes to help sell and burnish the Wheaties brand worldwide, continuing to the present day.

     Stay tuned to this website for additional stories on the history of the “Wheaties celebrities” in subsequent decades and to the present day.  Other related sports and/or marketing stories at this website that may be of interest include, for example: “Baseball 1929 & Jimmie Foxx,” “Ruth at Oriole Park,” “Mickey Mantle’s 534th,” and “Keeps on Ticking,” the latter covering sports stars in advertising for Timex watches. Thanks for visiting. – Jack Doyle

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Date Posted:  29 March 2010
Last Update:  18 January 2014
Comments to:  jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Wheaties & Sport, 1930s,”
PopHistoryDig.com, March 29, 20010.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

Time magazine cover of October 5, 1936 features Carl Hubbell, pitcher of the New York Giants, and Lou Gehrig of the New York Yankees. The two faced each other that year in the World Series. Gehrig had appeared on a Wheaties box in 1934, Hubbell in 1937.
Time magazine cover of October 5, 1936 features Carl Hubbell, pitcher of the New York Giants, and Lou Gehrig of the New York Yankees. The two faced each other that year in the World Series. Gehrig had appeared on a Wheaties box in 1934, Hubbell in 1937.
General Mills, Inc., “Wheaties, the Breakfast of Champions: An American Sports Icon for 80 Years,” Updated / September 2004 (earlier paper posted online, since removed ).

“Wheaties: A Rather Humble Beginning,” Wheaties. com.

“General Mills History of Innovation: Wheaties — The Breakfast of Champions,” GeneralMills.com.

General Mills, Inc.,Website, Wheaties.com

“Wheaties,” Wikipedia.org.

Jim Rednour, “500HRC Members’ Long Tradition With the ‘Breakfast of Champions’,” 500HRC.com, Monday, 30 April 2007.

Sports Artifacts.com

“Mel Ott” and others (statistics), Baseball-Refer- ence.com.

“Mel Ott” and others, Wikipedia.org.

Robert Edwards Auctions, Watchung, New Jersey.

“General Mills History of Innovation: Radio and TV,”GeneralMills.com.




“Al Jolson & Luckies”
1928-1940s

Famous 1920s’ singer & film star, Al Jolson, in Lucky Strike cigarette ad.  Literary Digest, December 22, 1928.
Famous 1920s’ singer & film star, Al Jolson, in Lucky Strike cigarette ad. Literary Digest, December 22, 1928.
     In 1927, Al Jolson became famous as one of the first actors and singers to star in a talking motion picture – The Jazz Singer.  But Jolson was already a big star by this time.  In fact, by 1920, he was America’s highest paid entertainer, well known for his singing.  Between 1911 and 1928, Jolson had more than 80 hit records and had performed on more than a dozen national and international tours.  He often performed in blackface makeup – a theatrical style of that era – singing jazz, blues, and ragtime.  He also liked to have stage runways extend out into the audience, where he would roam at will, sometimes teasing and cajoling his fans, or stopping to sing a song to one person in particular.  Audiences loved his perfor- mances.

     But Jolson’s appearance in the first feature-length motion picture with synchro- nized sound and dialogue sent him to another level of stardom.  In The Jazz Singer, Jolson performed six songs produced by Warner Brothers with its Vitaphone sound-on-disc system.  The film’s release  — quite the event in its day – heralded the rise of the “talkies” and the end of the silent film era.  Being the first popular singer to make a big event out of singing a song in film with sound, Jolson became the equal of a today’s “rock star.”  In fact, some would later dub him an Elvis Presley equivalent in the popular jazz and blues styles of that era.  In any case, The Jazz Singer boosted Jolson’s career, sending him into more prosperous roles, starring in a series of successful musical films throughout the 1930s.  With his celebrity at its peak, the economic powers that be soon came after Jolson to endorse and promote their products.  And none of those who came calling was a bigger power than the American Tobacco Co., then one of the world’s largest companies and maker of numerous tobacco products, including Lucky Strike cigarettes.

The premiere of “The Jazz Singer” in New York at the Warners Theater, October 6, 1927, the first talking motion picture and quite the event in its day.
The premiere of “The Jazz Singer” in New York at the Warners Theater, October 6, 1927, the first talking motion picture and quite the event in its day.
     The American Tobacco Co. knew full well what it was doing with celebrity endorsers such as Al Jolson in the rising film industry.  The company, in fact, would become famous, in part, for its role in using all manner of the persuasive arts and beyond — including the hiring of advertising psychologists — in crafting its advertising and promotional strategies.  American Tobacco in the 1920s was run by George Washington Hill, the man who would lead the tobacco industry into the era of mass advertising.  Hill hired some of the leading lights of his day in advertising and public relations to help advance his plans – among them, A.D. Lasker, Edward Bernays, and Ivy Lee.  American Tobacco’s advertising and PR campaigns, for example, were among the first to target women as potential smokers.  “Together, Hill and Lasker are credited with starting more people on the smoking habit than anyone in history,” writes Milt Moskowitz in his 1980 book, Everybody’s Business.  “They also helped break the taboo against women smoking in public.”  But the film-star and Hollywood connection would become especially important to American Tobacco in all of its campaigns, and later, for other tobacco companies as well.  “The links between Hollywood and tobacco go back to the beginning of talking pictures,” says Stanton Glantz, co-author of the 2008 study, Signed, Sealed and Delivered: Big Tobacco in Hollywood, 1927-1951.  “It was a way to thoroughly embed tobacco use in the social fabric.”


“Precious Voice”

“The Tobacco Celebrities”

     This is one in a series of occasional articles that will focus on the history of popular celebrities from film, tele- vision, sports and other fields who have lent their names or voice, offered endorsing statements, or made person- al appearances in various forms of tobacco advertising and promotion.  Famous actors, sports stars and other notable personalities have been endors- ing tobacco products since the late 1800s.  One recent report published in the journal Tobacco Control, for example, notes that nearly 200 Hollywood stars from the 1930s and 1940s were contracted to tobacco companies for advertising.  And while the stigma associated with smoking and using other tobacco products has increased in recent years as medical research evidence linking disease to tobacco has become more widely understood, the promotion of tobacco products, while not as blatant and pervasive as it once was, continues to this day in a number of countries.  Not all celebrities, of course, have been involved in such endorsements, and some have worked for, or lent their names to, programs and organizations that help to prevent cigarette smoking or other tobacco-related public health problems.

     Beginning in the late ’20s, American Tobacco began a campaign to link smoking with sophistication, slimness, and “sonorous voices.”  Part of this campaign in 1927 was dubbed the “Precious Voice” campaign, which dovetailed nicely with the arrival of the both the talking motion picture and the rise of radio and its commercialization.  American Tobacco, in fact, spent tens of millions of dollars on radio programs that ran between 1928 and the mid-1950s; shows which also used the company’s celebrity tobacco ads.  But in the late 1920s, following the release of The Jazz Singer, as “talking pictures” became all the rage, American Tobacco sought actor endorsements for its cigarettes.  It also began actor and singer cigarette advertising that claimed Lucky Strike spared their throats and protected their voices.  And American Tobacco ads also used another tack in 1928 – this time featuring Lucky Strike cigarettes as an alternative to fattening sweets.  “Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet” was the slogan that ran with this campaign in 1928-1929.  Al Jolson appeared in at least one of these ads  — as shown in the December 1928 ad at the top of this story.  That ad ran in popular magazines of the day.  Jolson is quoted in the ad’s headline saying: “I light up a Lucky and go light on the sweets.  That’s how I keep in good shape and always feel peppy.”  Part of the arrangement in such ads was also to have a tie-in with the film studio – in this case, for Jolson’s latest new film.  Near the Lucky Strike pack in the above ad, the text reads: “Al Jolson, as he appears in Warner Bros Vitaphone success, The Singing Fool.”


Feds Take Note

     In 1929, however, the federal government’s Federal Trade Commission (FTC) began to scrutinize cigarette ads and their testimonials by the famous personalities.  One of the campaigns the FTC went after was American Tobacco’s “Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet” campaign, and the use of that slogan.  Not surprisingly, the U.S. candy industry had lobbied federal regulators to restrict American Tobacco’s use of this phrase and would also bring legal action against American Tobacco to change its ads.  But the FTC also looked at the testimonials used by celebrities in the American Tobacco ads, calling them misleading.  The FTC would specifically cite Jolson’s words in one endorsement where he is making several claims about the supposed benefits of smoking Luckies – similar to those used in first ad above.  In the advertising, Jolson is quoted as saying, in part:

“Talking pictures demand a very clear voice… Toasting kills off all the irritants, so my voice is as clear as a bell in every scene.  Folks, let me tell you, the good old flavor of Luckies is as sweet and soothing as the best “Mammy” song ever written… There’s one great thing about the toasted flavor…it surely satisfies the craving for sweets.  That’s how I always keep in good shape and always feel peppy.”

     The FTC also found that Jolson did not write the attributed lines himself or review it before its use, specifically citing a 1928 Lucky Strike Radio Hour broadcast of the message.  Instead, Warner Brothers’ advertising manager A. P. Waxman, signed a release on Warner Brothers letterhead for text similar to what was used on air, stating that he acted on Jolson’s behalf.  In November 1929, the FTC issued a cease and desist order against American Tobacco, prohibiting the use of testimonials unless written by the endorser, whose opinions were “genuine, authorised and unbiased”.  In addition, American Tobacco did not acknowledge publicly in its print ads or radio broadcasts that its advertising testimonials were bought or that an advertising agency drafted them.


By the late 1930s, American Tobacco was regularly using movie-star celebrities in its ads, such as Claudette Colbert, shown here, also noting her co-staring role in the upcoming film, “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife,” by Paramount.
By the late 1930s, American Tobacco was regularly using movie-star celebrities in its ads, such as Claudette Colbert, shown here, also noting her co-staring role in the upcoming film, “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife,” by Paramount.
Celebrity Ads

     American Tobacco revised the contractual language for its 1931 endorsement campaign to ensure control over the language and messaging of the testimonials, while still conforming to the FTC’s 1929 stipulations that endorsers supply the testimonial.  While actors offered their opinions and declared the number of years they smoked Lucky cigarettes, they permitted Lord & Thomas, the ad agency, to write the actual testimonial  — “phrased in such form as to make an effective message from the standpoint of truthfulness and advertising value.”  Actors also signed revised release statements that read: “No monetary or other consideration of any kind or character has been paid me or promised me for the above statement, by [American Tobacco's agent], or by the manufacturers of Lucky Strike Cigarettes or otherwise.”  But the money was flowing to the studios, not the actors directly, a practice that would only grow in the decades ahead, as other tobacco companies began their campaigns.  The studios would soon see big gains from the cross promotion in these ads, as their stars and latest movies were being touted, so they were generally happy to deal with the tobacco companies.  According to the study, Signed, Sealed and Delivered: Big Tobacco in Hollywood, 1927-1951, the studios also negotiated the content of testimonials, insisted that the timing of the ads and radio appearances be coordinated with movie releases, and sometimes denied permission for deals that did not serve their interest.  But all in all, it was a good deal for the studios and the tobacco companies.

     The FTC, meanwhile, in its earlier investigation of the film-star tobacco ads, had also ordered American Tobacco to disclose payments made for actor testimonials used in its advertising.  However, by 1934, American Tobacco successfully removed this disclosure requirement, presumably through its lobbying of the agency. From the late 1930s through the 1940s, two thirds of the top 50 box office stars in Hollywood would endorse tobacco products in advertising.  Soon, the FTC’s attempt to clamp down on the relationship between big tobacco and its Hollywood helpers was largely circumvented.  Some internal film industry prohibitions on actor endorsements — briefly in effect in 1931 – would be bypassed as well.  By 1937 and 1938, American Tobacco was paying to have a long list of Hollywood stars to appear in its ads, including: Gary Cooper, Claudette Colbert, Joan Crawford, Henry Fonda, Bob Hope, Carole Lombard, Ray Milland, Robert Montgomery, Richard Powell, George Raft, Edward G. Robinson, Barbara Stanwyck, Gloria Swanson, Robert Taylor, Spencer Tracy, and Jane Wyatt.  The payments to stars ranged in value, in 2008 dollars, generally from $40,000 to $140,000 for each endorsement.  In all, American Tobacco payed out the 2008 equivalent of some $3.2 million for actor endorsements of Lucky Strike cigarettes in print ads and radio spots in 1937-38.  In fact, from the late 1930s through the 1940s, two thirds of the top 50 box office stars in Hollywood would endorse tobacco products in advertising.

By the late 1940s, Chesterfield cigarettes were the dominant brand being pitched by Hollywood celebs, here by Gary Cooper in 1948, also plugging his film, “Unconquered” by Parmount.
By the late 1940s, Chesterfield cigarettes were the dominant brand being pitched by Hollywood celebs, here by Gary Cooper in 1948, also plugging his film, “Unconquered” by Parmount.
     Nearly a decade later, in the early- and mid-1940s, the FTC once again turned its attention to investigating the advertising methods of American Tobacco and R. J. Reynolds for their Lucky and Camel film-star testimonials. As it did, another cigarette maker, Liggett & Myers, maker of the Chesterfield brand, took advantage of the FTC’s focus on those companies to launch its own Hollywood-celebrity ad campaign.  Liggett & Myers began a multi-year Hollywood campaign in print and on radio, spending the 2008 equivalent of $50.9 million in 1946 alone.  As a result, the Chesterfield cigarette brand gained endorsements from Hollywood stars who had formerly endorsed Lucky Strikes.  Among these new “Chesterfield celebrities” were: Barbara Stanwyck, Claudette Colbert, Gary Cooper, Bob Hope and Ray Milland from Paramount; Clark Gable at MGM; Fred MacMurray from Universal; and Joan Crawford at Warner Bros.  On the radio too, with its Chesterfield Supper Club, Liggett & Myers had testimonials from stars such as Barbara Stanwyck, Susan Hayward, Fred MacMurray, and Rosalind Russell.  And of course, the practice of celebrities endorsing tobacco products — celebrities from Hollywood, the sports world, and other fields — did not end in the 1940s, and in fact would expand in the decades ahead with the rise of the new medium, television.

     Stay tuned to the this website for more stories on the history of tobacco advertising by celebrities, and generally for stories on the history of advertising and its impact on modern culture. Thanks for visiting — and please consider supporting this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle

Please Support
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Donate Now

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Date Posted:  31 January 2010
Last Update:  11 February 2014
Comments to:  jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Al Jolson & Luckies, 1928-1940s,”
PopHistoryDig.com, January 31, 2010.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

Lucky Strike Radio
1928-1950s

     Between the late 1920s and mid-1950s, the American Tobacco Co. spent tens of millions of dollars on radio programs that ran between 1928 and the mid-1950s; shows which also used the company’s celebrity tobacco ads.  Among these programs were: The Lucky Strike Dance Orchestra, also known as the Lucky Strike Dance Hour, which aired on NBC radio from 1928 to 1931; Your Hit Parade, which ran on NBC and CBS from 1935 to 1955; Your Hollywood Parade, an hour long weekly program broadcast from the Warner Brothers studio Hollywood lot; and The Jack Benny Program, which ran from the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s.  Of the program Your Holly- wood Parade, broadcast from the Warner Brothers studio lot, the authors of Signed, Sealed and Delivered: Big Tobacco in Hollywood, 1927-1951, would write: “The radio show re- inforced the impression, also encour- aged by the print campaign, that everyone in Hollywood smoked Lucky Strike…”  In fact, on that radio program in the early 1940s, Lucky Strike “impressions” – phrases, jingles or brand name mentions of one kind or another – were being heard by listeners nearly every 30 seconds.

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Tracie White, “Tobacco-Movie Industry Financial Ties Traced to Hollywood’s Early Years in Stanford/UCSF Study,” Stanford.edu, September 24, 2008.

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R. Kluger, Ashes to Ashes: America’s Hundred-Year War, the Public Health, and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.

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