“You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!” or the story of how Virginia Slims tried to ‘emancipate’ women through smoking

In 1968, cigarette firm Philip Morris introduced a brand of cigarettes targeted, for the first time, exclusively towards women as consumers.[i] These were the strategically marketed ‘Virginia Slims’, which, at 100mm in length and 23mm in circumference, were longer and thinner than cigarettes from competing brands.[ii] To ensure that this product took root in the imaginations of female consumers, specific and targeted forms of advertising were adopted. In this piece, a closer look has been taken at the first of the television commercials which were released to promote the product, with a catchy jingle decisively informing the consumer about their place in history – ‘You’ve come a long way, baby’.[iii] I seek to explore the ways in which this narrative is gendered in its construction of feminine identity as being separate and distinct from the idea of masculinity. While the advertisement is targeted at women, it also contributes towards image construction of what the modern woman is expected to look like, and how this is different from the expectations from men.

The advertisement itself was created in 1968-69.[iv] This was also the time when the ‘second wave’ feminist movement was on the rise – Betty Freidan had published The Feminine Mystique in 1963, and in 1966, the National Organisation of Women was formed.[v] The ‘60s thus provided a perfect platform for Philip Morris to capitalize on the movement by positioning smoking as a symbol of the newly arrived modern woman rising to claim equality with the men around her. The body of the commercial is gendered in obvious ways. It opens to an exaggerated sepia representation of a woman, identified as Mrs. Pamela Benjamin, who gets ‘caught’ smoking in the garden by her husband, and receives a ‘severe scolding, and no supper’. Another sepia montage follows, where a Mrs. Cynthia Robinson is ‘caught’ smoking in the cellar. The voiceover narrates that despite her being 34 years old, her husband sends her ‘straight to her room’. This is followed by a quick flash of a suffragette march, with a proud declaration stating that ‘at last, women won their rights’. A drum roll ensues, and the screen shifts towards an elegantly dressed, slender model, with the jingle ‘You’ve Come a Long Way Baby’ playing in the background. The properties of the cigarette are then described – this is a ‘slim’ cigarette ‘tailored for the female hand’, rather than the ‘fat cigarettes men smoke’, with a flavor that women like, namely a ‘mellow, mild Virginia flavor’. The package is then slowly and elegantly placed into a slim woman’s purse, and the model smiles at the camera, takes a drag, and walks away to the accompanying jingle – ‘You’ve come a long way baby, to get where you got to today. You’ve got your own cigarettes now baby, you’ve come a long, long way!”

Before unpacking the elements of this commercial, it is important to provide a short contextual history of the gendered marketing of cigarettes. Mass-produced cigarettes first appeared in the late 19th century and were initially entirely targeted towards men. The perception around smoking at the time centered around the idea of morality. Smoking was considered a dirty habit, even for men, and was seen as a sign of corruption.[vi] Female smokers were seen as ‘fallen women’, and it was associated solely with prostitution.[vii] However, following the First World War, the repositioning of women in public roles that had hitherto only been occupied by men led to an increase in smoking among women. This was seen as an opportunity by cigarette companies to capitalize on a new consumer group that could potentially double the market for cigarettes.[viii] Specifically, Lucky Strike began zeroing on cigarettes as being associated with slimness[ix], with its tagline ‘Reach for a Lucky Instead!” promoting a fat-free way of reducing hunger. However, till this point, smoking was not considered a publicly acceptable activity for women. Thus, it is significant that in the late 1920s, the discourse around women smoking moved towards the emancipation narrative. This was manifested in 1929, when Edward Bernay, who was a publicist with the American Tobacco Company, selected a small-group of female smokers and got them to smoke[x] at the Easter Parade in New York city, with media coverage.[xi] This was inspired by psychoanalyst A.A. Brill’s theory that if smoking became associated with power, it would imply that women would break taboos and start smoking on the streets.[xii] Brill coined the “Torches of Freedom” metaphor, which was heavily relied upon by Bernay; further, in a strategic move, Bernay did not mention any specific cigarette company, but posited the march as a general move towards women’s rights.[xiii] Thus, the stage was set for advertisers to capitalize on the dialogue around women’s rights to further their own gains. Between the politics of feminist consciousness raising and the economics of capitalism, cigarette manufacturers found their sweet spot. This is evident from the Virginia Slims (hereinafter “Slims”) commercial. The throwback to the two incidences where the women were chastised and controlled by the men reflect a time when women were subordinated. The shift to the elegant modern woman, who controls her own choices, and smokes her own cigarettes is meant to be symbolic of the time. The naming of the cigarettes themselves was gendered, with its focus on the feminine name, Virginia, and the implicit association with thinness in ‘Slims’.[xiv] The brand’s packaging and positioning in the advertisement showcases the manufacturers’ notion of femininity and the modern woman. Their model is white, tall, well groomed, and extremely thin. This is a construction of femininity that stems from a male advertiser’s gaze, and further positions woman as being different from man to the extent that a separate cigarette is needed to fit in with her femininity. It is important to note that while the Slims advertisement seems to speak to notions of equality, it does not suggest gender-neutrality. Advertisement tactics that target men, like the famous ‘Marlboro Man’ campaign (which was made by the same ad agency which came up with the Slims advertisement) portray traits like ruggedness, toughness, independence and power.[xv] In contrast, the “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!” hook itself infantilizes women immediately with its use of the word ‘Baby’. Further, the advertisement seems to inform women that they now have rights, and nudges towards almost telling the viewer what to do, now that they are ‘free’. This advertisement seems to exclusively target affluent white American women and has not even a glimmer of intersectionality. Gloria Steinem points out that smoking as emancipation would be problematic in any other context; for instance, she posits that showing a black man picking cotton, and then dressed in a suit while smoking would not be tolerated as a symbol of the anti-slavery and civil rights movement.[xvi]

A final issue that must be addressed is the very real impact that this kind of advertising had on women’s health. As a result of this ad, the percentage of women smokers rose from 45% to 48% of the total smoker population, and their contribution to the cigarette market rose from 41% to 45% between 1970-79. Further, the same survey found that the recall value of the “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!” was very high among young women between the ages of 18 to 34.[xvii] Virginia Slims captured higher market shares between 1979-1989. Needless to say, the health consequences of smoking have impacted women who smoke – data shows that women who smoke have a 2.64 times higher risk of death than women who do not smoke, and a 25% higher chance of developing coronary heart disease than men who smoke. It also has severe consequences on reproductive health and can have intergenerational impact. Further, women represent 64% of deaths from secondhand smoke. In light of the fact that around 22% of women in the developed world, and 9% in the developing world smoke tobacco, it is crucial to step back and re-examine the long-term damage that this kind of narrative has wrought.[xviii] In a recent Bollywood movie touted largely as being radically feminist, Lipstick Under My Burkha, the four female protagonists sharing a cigarette at the end is positioned as a subtle indicator of emancipation.[xix] While the health hazards of smoking cigarettes have become common knowledge, in many parts of the world, lighting a cigarette is still seen as a sign of rebellion against the patriarchy.[xx] This would not have been possible without the power of advertisements, and its gendered targeting. The feminist movement has indeed come a long way, but it is not thanks to the cigarette, baby.

Written by: Padmini Baruah MALD F21


[i] Toll, B. (2005). The Virginia Slims identity crisis: an inside look at tobacco industry marketing to women. Tobacco Control, 14(3), pp.172-180

[ii] Dewhirst, T., Lee, W., Fong, G. and Ling, P. (2015). Exporting an Inherently Harmful Product: The Marketing of Virginia Slims Cigarettes in the United States, Japan, and Korea. Journal of Business Ethics, 139(1), pp.161-181.

[iii] YouTube. (2018). Virginia Slims Cigarette Commercials. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vXUbkIkwn2Y [Accessed 19 Oct. 2020].

[iv] Craig, S. (1999). “Torches of Freedom”: Themes of Women’s Liberation in American Cigarette Advertising, Paper Presented to the Gender Studies Division, Southwest/Texas Popular Culture Association, February 25, p. 11.

[v] Ibid

[vi] Amos, A. and Haglund, M. (2000). From social taboo to “torch of freedom”: the marketing of cigarettes to women. Tobacco Control, 9(1), pp.3-8.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Amos et al

[ix] Tobacco.stanford.edu. (2018). Stanford Research into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising. [online] Available at: http://tobacco.stanford.edu/tobacco_main/images.php?token2=fm_st046.php&token1=fm_img1138.php&theme_file =fm_mt014.php&theme_name=Keeps [Accessed 19 Oct. 2020].

[x] Getty Images. (2018). Women publicly fire up their ‘Torches Of Freedom’ Lucky Strike…. [online] Available at: https://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/women-publicly-fire-up-their-torches-of-freedom-lucky-newsphoto/142626959 [Accessed 19 Oct. 2020].

[xi] Murphree, V. (2015). Edward Bernays’s 1929 “Torches of Freedom” March: Myths and Historical Significance. American Journalism, 32(3), pp.258-281.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Murphree

[xiv] Dewhirst et al

[xv] Shirk, A. (2018). The Real Marlboro Man. [online] The Atlantic. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/02/the-real-marlboro-man/385447/ [Accessed 19 Oct. 2020].

[xvi] Steinem, G. (1990). Sex, Lies and Advertising. Ms., pp.170-178.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Toll et al

[xix] YouTube. (2018). Lipstick under my burk new hindi movie. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nd1drU3TzaE [Accessed 19 Oct. 2020]. at 1:52:51

[xx] Almeida, R. (2018). Smoking Kills, But So Does Patriarchy | Feminism In India. [online] Feminism In India. Available at: https://feminisminindia.com/2018/07/03/smoking-kills-patriarchy/ [Accessed 19 Oct. 2020].