Old Cigarette Ads and the "Flynn Effect"

Perhaps the most counterintuitive scientific finding of recent decades is the "Flynn effect," the discovery that people all over the world, on average, have been increasing their scores on IQ tests each decade. Unfortunately, there has been no accompanying evidence that people are actually any smarter. Anyone who could prove that would be a shoo-in for a Nobel Prize, so let me be the first to proclaim what I call the "Camel effect," based on my study of an exhibit at the New York Public Library of tobacco advertisements from the 20th century. (Selections from the exhibit are online at tobacco.stanford.edu.) I named it after an ad that showed Lou Gehrig, the great ballplayer, assuring readers that "Camels are so mild they never get my 'wind'." This is such preposterous nonsense that if Americans 75 years ago were really taken in by it—against, presumably, the evidence of their own bodies—there is only one conclusion you can draw. They weren't very smart.

Long before lung cancer became a widespread concern, a staple of cigarette advertising was testimonials from athletes averring that smoking didn't detract from their performance or stamina. In baseball alone, Camel fielded a virtual All-Star team of endorsers, including Gehrig, Mel Ott, Yogi Berra and Joe DiMaggio. Chesterfield fought back with ads featuring Ted Williams, Stan Musial and … Joe DiMaggio, whose greatness was such that it couldn't be diminished even by smoking two different brands. Turn the magazine page, and you would find advertisements featuring actors and singers—Ronald Reagan, Fred Astaire, Barbara Stanwyck, among many others—swearing that their cigarettes didn't make them hoarse. A subgenre consisted of endorsements from politicians, whose occupation also depended on a healthy speaking voice. In the 1920s Republican Sen. Charles Curtis, soon to be vice president of the United States, appeared in newspapers with a message for his fellow citizens about the virtues of Lucky Strikes. If you doubt that people are getting smarter, try to imagine how much the credibility of a United States senator would be worth today to a manufacturer of, say, chewing gum.

But the most remarkable category of advertisements, in the view of the man who assembled the collection, Dr. Robert K. Jackler of the Stanford School of Medicine, was the one featuring doctors. His first acquisition made the highly specific, albeit meaningless, claim that "20,679 physicians say 'Luckies Are Less Irritating'," and he titled the exhibit after a slogan for Old Gold, "Not a Cough in a Carload." (To the extent the "research" mentioned in the ads was real, it was usually funded by the cigarette makers.) The "doctors" giving this advice were, as the saying goes, right out of central casting: handsome and rugged, radiating wisdom and reassurance—no wonder, as Jackler says, the American Medical Association voiced no objections, even running the ads in its own publications. "The industry enlisted the best talent available," says Jackler, a head and neck surgeon. "I look at these ads and I see genius at work."

Well, he's the expert, but I look at the ads and I see trumpery so obvious a sixth grader could see through it. The ads—sometimes even the same ad—made patently self-contradictory claims, that cigarettes were both calming and stimulating to "the nerves." They quoted celebrities making the same stilted claims in the same words, sometimes for different brands. Above all, the defensiveness of their health claims should have tipped off even the most somnolent reader. Even if you'd believed that an Olympic decathlon champion was a smoker, you might have wondered why the cigarette companies felt so compelled to make the point, over and over. It's obvious that people just aren't that gullible anymore.

They aren't, are they?