When Philip Morris introduced Marlboro cigarettes in 1924, the ads, far from showing a rugged horseman in some sage-strewn arroyo, depicted a sophisticated modern woman. The cigarettes featured an “ivory tip” to “protect the lips”—or a red one, to hide lipstick stains—and were marketed under the slogan “Mild As May.” For the next 30 years, Marlboro was known as a lady’s cigarette.
Then, in 1952, Reader’s Digest ran an article that would transform the cigarette business. Health concerns about tobacco had been in the air for decades, but after the publication of “Cancer by the Carton,” public opinion jelled around the conviction that smoking was bad for you. Manufacturers hastened to develop a cigarette they could claim was safer. Lorillard had recently come out with a filtered brand called Kent (its “safer” Micronite filters contained asbestos), but though filtered-cigarette sales grew in the year after the Reader’s Digest article, they still held only 3.2 percent of the market. Filters made the “draw” more difficult, and consumers found them strange and effete.
Philip Morris, making use of the increasingly powerful advertising medium of TV, took its own stab at a popular filtered cigarette. In 1955, the company relaunched its Marlboro brand, adding a filter, strengthening the flavor, inventing the flip-top cigarette hard pack, and constructing an ad campaign with the tagline “Filter Flavor Fliptop Box” around masculine imagery (gunsmiths, sea captains, and cowboys). The company had found a way, that is, to get men to buy filtered cigarettes: by focusing on the thing that was most important to them—the flavor they were used to.
By 1972, Marlboro had become the No. 1 brand worldwide, and roughly 84 percent of cigarettes sold had filters. Today, 98 percent of cigarettes are filtered. “The brilliance of Philip Morris in particular,” says Roy Anise, whose roles during 24 years with the company included Marlboro brand manager, was “the way they repositioned the Marlboro to keep the bridge to familiarity.”
Last summer, Anise found himself working for another company in a similar quandary. NJOY makes electronic cigarettes: Sucking on one activates a lithium-battery-powered heating element that vaporizes a nicotine solution while illuminating a light at the tip. Until recently, electronic cigarettes were almost uniformly off-putting: You recharged them by plugging them into a USB port, and there was a scammy, spammy quality to their marketing. Those that didn’t have FDA-baiting names like Safe Cig and HealthE-Cig had cheesy ones like Fin and Krave and Logic and Eonsmoke and V2 and Cig2O and Tsunami and Blu and, for that matter, NJOY. They came in flavors (piña colada, blackberry Champagne, chocolate banana). Most of all, they were just weird-looking, resembling ballpoint pens or cigar cases or, as a fan named the Ocelot noted in a “vaping” chat room, “a cross between a marital aid and a light saber.”
They were, in other words, a long way from the elemental paper and tobacco and fire of traditional cigarettes, from the meditative object lyricized by Sartre in L’Être et le néant, from the visual accessory so integral to the silver-screen images of Humphrey Bogart, Frank Sinatra, James Dean, James Bond, and Audrey Hepburn. Whatever glamour cigarettes have possessed, there has always been a tar-to-cool correspondence: Camel unfiltereds were badass; Merit Ultra Lights weren’t.
“It’s hard to feel like James Dean while sucking a plastic glow stick,” Business Insider recently noted. And despite the reported use of e-cigarettes by celebrities including Robert Pattinson, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Katherine Heigl, their only major film cameo to date was in The Tourist, where they seemed intended to punctuate the Johnny Depp character’s awkward haplessness. At an awards show in February, Noel Gallagher of Oasis reportedly told Muse’s e-cig-smoking drummer: “Really? Really? Is that where you are at? Do me a favor, mate, either have a proper one outside or don’t have one.”
If NJOY is to cross over—reaching all the people, men in particular, who have been resistant to the category—it will need to pull off something like what Marlboro did nearly 60 years ago. “Mark Twain said history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme,” says Anise. And so, as four successive groups of six self-identified smokers sat for 75 minutes each in a room in Phoenix one day last summer, Anise and other NJOY executives watched from behind a two-way mirror, looking to see whether they had succeeded in creating a bridge to familiarity. Two of the focus groups consisted of smokers who’d never tried e-cigarettes, and one man, asked what it would take for him to try one, said, with his arms crossed and a look of enormous skepticism on his face: “$75 and a focus group.”