Graham Williamson ponders the curiously disruptive and surrealist cigarette advertising from the final decade of the twentieth century. Welcome to Weird ’90s…
When I use the phrase ‘weird 90s’, I don’t mean the 1990s was weirder than other decades. It’s more that the weirdness was much closer to the surface than is normally allowed. There is always weirdness around if you care to look, it’s just that, in the 1990s, you didn’t have to do much searching. You could just look at the nearest billboard.
As a child in the early ’90s, I was entranced by a new type of advertising, one that seemed to exist on a whole different planet to the drably descriptive ads I was familiar with. Rather than the standard copywriter’s promises, they featured meticulously achieved surrealist imagery that seemed crafted to disrupt and subvert the mundanity of town centres. Nearly thirty years on, I can still remember not just the adverts but where I saw them: the giant lime green Venus flytrap that speeded past the window of a train I was on, the men made of ears I spotted lurking behind a steelworks at night, the Ballardian petrified rainforest I discovered in one of my mum’s magazines.
Anyone trying to work out what these extraordinary, convulsive images were promoting would have been lost without the small strip of text at the bottom warning that smoking could seriously damage your health. They were cigarette adverts, and although I had no idea at the time, their new strangeness was part of a long-running war between advertisers and regulators.
The 1990s were a gratifyingly tough time for the tobacco industry. The first major controversy of the decade came from America, where Camel cigarettes’ cartoon mascot ‘Joe Camel’ was plausibly accused of being designed to appeal to children. A steady drip of disclosures proved the industry always knew the health risks of their product; in 1996 the whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand revealed Brown & Williamson had knowingly added extra carcinogens to their cigarettes.
The traditional methods of promoting smoking – all those retrospectively-insane mid-century commercials where beaming models and Flintstones characters assure you that their cigarettes would leave you sexier, happier, even healthier – was not going to fly in this environment. Even if it could have worked, the growing public concern was leading even conservative governments to introduce tougher regulations on what could and could not be said in a tobacco advert.
One possible way around this involved humour. Characters like Lambert and his butler or Regal Reg – anyone familiar with the names of UK tobacco brands should be able to work out what they were selling – offered the kind of puns usually found in a gag-a-day newspaper comic. This faltered when, as the Weird Universe blog notes with splendid bluntness, ‘the stupid humor of the ads appealed mostly to young adolescents’.  It wasn’t a Joe Camel-sized scandal, but it was enough to get the industry to step back from comedy cigarette commercials.
The other possibility had been brewing for a long time. As far back as 1977 the advertising agency Collett Dickenson Pearce (CDP) had been promoting Benson & Hedges using striking, offbeat images revolving around the brand’s signature gold packet. The 1970s and 80s saw that packet replacing one of the Great Pyramids, sitting in a bird cage and being carried by an army of ants, usually in a glossy, stylized landscape whose magic-hour lighting chimed with the gold of the packet.
The ants poster debuted in 1983, the year of my birth, which also saw the birth of one of the weirdest, most famous tobacco campaigns. Saatchi & Saatchi’s posters for Silk Cut began with a simple pun on the brand’s name – a spread of purple silk with a slit cut in the middle of it. Yet there was something ominous about the Silk Cut posters. The luxury of the silk and the violence of the cut seemed to invite sadomasochistic, even necrophiliac interpretations – rumours persist that Saatchi & Saatchi staffers nicknamed the first poster “silk cunt”. A later poster involving a silk shower curtain prompted the following, remarkable admission from an anonymous advertising executive:
‘…I felt distinctly uncomfortable. You knew that the scene was Hitchcock’s Psycho. The woman was about to be raped and killed.’ 
That quote comes from Alastair McIntosh’s 1996 paper ‘Eros to Thanatos – Cigarette Adverts’, published just as Wigand was revealing the truth about Brown & Williamson. McIntosh, now a leading advocate for land rights, was fascinated by an increasing strain of morbidity and horror imagery in cigarette advertising. He links the posters to Freudianism and Surrealism – one Silk Cut advert was based on Man Ray’s 1921 sculpture The Gift.
In a 1985 article for Creative Review, copywriter Chris Arnold assessed the growing trend for Surrealist advertising in the rigorously banal fashion you’d expect from this industry. It’s good, because it’s eye-catching! But it might backfire, because it’s confusing! At no point does the article acknowledge that an artistic school that ‘has become part and parcel of advertising creativity’  was a revolutionary, Communist-aligned movement. The first issue of the Surrealist magazine La Révolution surréaliste featured as its cover star Germaine Berton, an anarchist who assassinated a right-wing tabloid editor. Did Saatchi & Saatchi, whose posters for the Conservative Party in 1978 are widely credited with helping Margaret Thatcher to power, know about this element of Surrealism?
This sense that 1990s advertisers were playing with forces they didn’t understand is a repeated theme of McIntosh’s paper. At one point he offers his Freudian interpretation of a Benson & Hedges advert to its creator at CDP. An image of a large fish resting on a piano, it was part of a 1990s series of posters based on crossword clues. In this case, the answer was ‘piano tuner’ (geddit?).
It’s a simple gag, and it was the pleasure of seeing these common turns of phrase transformed into bizarre, photorealistic images that made me love with this campaign as a child. Except McIntosh saw something different. The fish was dead, its head resting on a cigarette packet that played a dissonant chord on the piano. The piano was as black as a coffin, save for an inviting gold keyhole, an invitation to pleasure and discovery undermined by the cold black text: ‘Smoking Kills’.
One might imagine a hard-headed, business-minded advertising executive would dismiss this kind of thinking out of hand. Yet the executive admitted ‘that might be there as well’ . He was sufficiently shaken to call McIntosh some weeks later and point him towards further evidence that the tobacco industry was playing with thanatopic imagery – a Campaign magazine article about a new brand called, simply, Death.
The branding of Death, produced by the semi-ironically named Enlightened Tobacco Company, was interpreted as an acknowledgement that ‘…smoking kills people. Not allegedly, or possibly, but actually. The Enlightened Tobacco Company says all this is true but smokers choose to risk their lives. If you’re going to die, they urge, die with us…’ 
To use the modern parlance, there is something a bit edgelord about this. Death went bust pretty quickly, finding that even 1990s consumers didn’t want a brand this morbid. (An attempt at breaking into Formula 1 sponsorship collapsed after the death of Ayrton Senna rendered Death’s skull-and-crossbones logo unsuitable for display on racing cars)
The Silk Cut and Benson & Hedges campaigns remain more unsettling for their lack of obvious transgressive content. The initial surreal posters CDP produced in the 1970s remain some of the most celebrated in advertising history; the 1990s crossword posters are largely forgotten despite being just as inventive. Is this because McIntosh was right? Did CDP look back at this campaign and realise that, in the race to top Saatchi & Saatchi’s taboo-busting, they had unleashed something truly troubling into the public sphere?
Perhaps. Or they may be embarrassed by the likelihood that these posters, with their puns and weird pictures, probably appealed to children as much as Joe Camel. Having started this article recounting my childhood fascination with them, I’d be a fool to disagree. As an adult, my political sympathies are aligned with McIntosh’s: tobacco is an industry whose hands are soaked in blood, and tobacco advertisers were hired to lie about that. Yet I can’t deny that these posters, with their uncanny, often disturbing imagery – one late B&H poster featured a leering, pliers-wielding dentist extracting a gold tooth – made the towns and cities of my youth seem more exciting, more open to subversion.
The dream of every child is that one day you’ll crack the impenetrable code which the adult world seems to be written in. The fact that the cigarette adverts of the 1990s were literally written in code, that the meaning of the advert and even the name of the brand had to be actively translated, probably made me a more critical consumer of media, as well as fortifying my love of Surrealism. What it didn’t do was make me a smoker, but that’s not why the adverts were phased out.
In 2002 tobacco advertising was banned in the UK. I still loved Surrealist art, but from then on I had to go to a gallery to see it, rather than have it jump, unbidden, from the side of a building or the pages of a magazine. For all the righteousness of the decision, something was lost.
 Arnold, Chris, ‘Appeal of the Surreal’, Creative Review, August 1985
 McIntosh, ibid.
 Collister, Patrick, Campaign, 15 April 1994