Cigarette billboards to disappear from landscape

Tobacco producers' deal requires removal of all outdoor ads by Thursday


Unhitched by riggers, the vinyl billboard in Times Square advertising Kool Natural cigarettes slid down like a curtain last week and was quickly carted away.

By midnight Thursday, every cigarette billboard in the country must come down as part of the $206 billion agreement reached last year between tobacco producers and 46 states to resolve all state claims over health costs related to smoking. Over the last month, cigarette makers and outdoor advertising companies have been scrambling to meet the deadline.

For anti-smoking groups, the end of the cigarette billboard stands as a major victory, a choking-off of an advertising medium that tobacco producers have dominated for nearly 20 years.

But the absence of the billboards is also significant for the change it will produce in this country's visual landscape. For decades, tobacco signs were the canvas used by some of the advertising industry's most talented designers and photographers. And the works they produced, ranging from the quaint to the ingenious to the garish, have served not only as urban meeting places and reference points for lost motorists but as cultural touchstones.

"For better or for worse, they were an integral part of the American landscape," said James Fraser, the library director at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, N.J., and the author of "The American Billboard: 100 Years."

Even as the signs disappear, some people have rallied to defend historic outdoor tobacco advertisements like the work of Harley Warrick, who spent four decades painting advertisements for Mail Pouch chewing tobacco on the sides of barns. Recently, regulators in West Virginia had to decide whether Warrick's barn signs fell under the settlement. The barns won a reprieve.

Robert Venturi, the postmodern architect, said that while he was sympathetic with opposition to smoking, tobacco billboards could also be objects of beauty.

"There will be a time when they will be hanging in craft museums on the wall next to patchwork quilts so that we can understand their beauty as a craft," said Venturi, who has celebrated outdoor advertising in books and articles about design.

In some ways, the agreement by cigarette makers to do away with billboard promotions is a replay of a strategy that led producers to dominate the outdoor landscape in the first place. In early 1970s, the tobacco industry voluntarily dropped television and radio advertising in the face of a looming government ban.

Many of those advertising dollars were soon poured into billboards. By the 1980s, one in every three billboards carried a tobacco ad, advertising industry executives said.

But the tobacco industry's dominance of the medium has declined in recent years. According to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, a trade group, cigarette makers last year accounted for only about 9 percent of the industry's revenue,

Some of the factors behind the drop included efforts by many municipalities to end outdoor tobacco advertisements. Before November's $206 billion deal with 46 states, the tobacco industry agreed to end billboard and transit promotions as part of settlements with four other states -- Florida, Minnesota, Mississippi and Texas -- to resolve lawsuits brought to recover smoking-related health care costs.

Outdoor advertisements were a part of the tobacco industry from its beginning. Before the turn of the century, large, colorful wall paintings advertising Bull Durham tobacco appeared. And as cigarette smoking grew more popular, tobacco producers quickly began to erect dramatic signs advertising their wares throughout the country.

Around 1911, for example, R. J. Reynolds Co. erected a mammoth blinking electric sign near the Flatiron Building in Manhattan that depicted a man with a giant glow at his feet and the words "Prince Albert." The sign read "The Nation's Joy Smoke, R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company," according to a history of the tobacco producer written by Nannie Tilley.

As cars began to crowd the nation's highways in the 1920s, tobacco signs bearing slogans like "Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco" became regular roadside attractions.

But as a crowd stopper, few billboards have rivaled the smoking Camel sign that began a 25-year run in Times Square starting in 1941. It sent out huge smoke rings.

Pub Date: 4/19/99

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