"It's Toasted"

Remember that scene in the pilot episode of Mad Men where Don Draper at the eleventh hour of a meeting comes up with the perfect Lucky Strike slogan that will distract consumers from the pernicious linkage between smoking and cancer? (The key part of the scene starts at about 3:20 in the video below.)

Don: This is the greatest advertising opportunity since the invention of cereal. We have six identical companies making six identical products. We can say anything we want. How do you make your cigarettes?
Lee Garner, Jr.: I don’t know.
Lee Garner, Sr.: Shame on you. We breed insect-repellent tobacco seeds, plant 'em in the North Carolina sunshine, grow it, cut it, cure it, toast it—
Don: There you go. There you go. [He writes: "Lucky Strike. It's Toasted."]
Lee Garner, Jr.: But everybody else’s tobacco is toasted.
Don: No, everybody else’s tobacco is poisonous. Lucky Strike’s is toasted.

In fact, as I learned while doing a bunch of tobacco research last week for some stories, the "real" story of this scene unfolded about 40 years before Mad Men opens in 1960. According to reporter Susan Wagner in her 1971 book Cigarette Country, "It's Toasted" was originally formulated as a way for the American Tobacco Company to compete against R. J. Reynolds & Co.'s newly developed—and wildly popular—Camel cigarettes in the wake of World War I. Among other factors, Camels had benefited from their use of burley tobacco, which had a stronger, nuttier taste than the domestic bright, or "Virginia," tobacco widely used in these years. At this time, many cigarette smokers still preferred the taste of Turkish tobacco, but during the war, all imports from Turkey to the United States were cut off, leaving those smokers high and dry. Burley helped fill the taste void.


With R. J. Reynolds moving toward dominance of the U.S. cigarette market—Wagner says that by the end of hostilities in 1918, the company controlled 40 percent of domestic cigarette sales—American Tobacco started looking for a way to hit back. They chose Lucky Strike, an old Richmond cigarette that had been around since 1871, when its name was formulated as an allusion to the Gold Rush then under way in California. As Wagner writes:

“A new package was designed, with its famous bull’s-eye in the center, and a sales campaign devised around the slogan ‘Lucky Strike, It’s Toasted.’ That idea came to [American Tobacco president Percival] Hill when a vice president in charge of manufacturing remarked that the amount of heat used in making cigarettes was equivalent to cooking. Lucky’s first advertising campaign shows a piece of toast with a fork stuck through it. This was the start of one of the most expensive, if not the most expensive, sales campaigns in merchandising history.”

Somewhat unsurprisingly, Matt Weiner decided to exclude the toast association from his version of the "It's Toasted" campaign in Mad Men. Toast, while delicious, has little sex appeal. But the real campaign proved far more prosaic than the TV version, not just in its evocation of the comforting breakfast food, but also in how explicitly it capitalized on an agricultural commodity. It's hard to imagine a 21st-century advertising campaign touting a specific variety of, say, corn or cotton ("Tostitos: the real bolita corn chip!"). Most people today simply aren't familiar enough with agriculture to differentiate between varietals. But in the 1910s, they were, and so American Tobacco's claim that Lucky Strike was "The real Burley Cigarette" meant something. The gamble paid off: Lucky Strikes would eventually become the best-selling cigarettes in the nation, one that is still sold in the United States today.