Smokes get in your eyes

If you are a Reader Of A Certain Age — particularly one who tore through piles of paperbacks the way I did in the 1970s — then this New York Times story about the flurry of glossy advertising pages stuck into paperback books during the 1960s and 1970s will have you nodding, and maybe coughing, in recognition.

The ads — preserved as part of the treasure trove on file at the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library at the University of California, San Francisco — were an ingenious publishing ploy to make reading a good book almost as frustrating as watching a good movie on television during late nights or weekends, when advertising rates were low and broadcasters consequently stuffed as many commercials as possible into each time slot. There was no way to avoid the damned things as you turned the pages. At least you could go to the bathroom when commercials started up on TV. Since my instinct was and is to keep books in the best possible shape, it took me a long time to get comfortable with the idea of ripping out the ads. Even when done carefully, nine times out of ten the action would pull some pages loose and start unraveling the book. I had some nice-looking paperbacks get trashed that way.

Most of the ads I remember were for cigarettes, but coffee and booze were part of the mix, too. On more than one occasion I would halt in mid-book to muse over the long, sleek lines of the Black Velvet girl, which made for an unsatisfactory situation all around: the author lost out by having his story interrupted, the advertiser lost out because I was too young to buy scotch, and I lost out because there was no way to contact the Black Velvet girl. Just try picking up the thread of a story after that train wreck.

Of course the writers never saw a dime of the advertising swag, which is why the Authors Guild eventually wrangled contract language barring the practice. According to the essay, the placement of cigarette ads made for some amusing juxtapositions. If you were running a tobacco company, would you really want your smokes displayed in a book called I Come to Kill You? On the other hand, the ads in the how-to manual Group Sex probably sold a whole lotta cigarettes, for reasons I’m sure I don’t have to explain.

I’d better bookmark the Times article for future reference. I have a hard enough time getting younger people to believe what it was like during the dark ages, when public spaces, trains and buses reeked of cigarette smoke and little trays full of stinking ashes were a fixture of every room. You were even considered rude if you asked an addict, ever so nicely, to take his fucking coffin nails outside and cultivate his carcinomas without smelling up the house. Every bit of evidence helps.

Libertarians and lobbyists can whine all they want about the indignities inflicted on poor innocent smokers by the nanny state. Those little five-minute leper colonies that form outside office buildings are just the place for nicoteenies. The sea change of opinion against cigarette smoking that started in the Seventies did us all an enormous favor. I’m here to tell you that it certainly improved the reading experience.

One thought on “Smokes get in your eyes

  1. Innocent bystander says:

    Very cool, Steven! I worked against smoking in the workplace for years. Hooray that smoking is now pushed to the edges of civilization–as it should be. I’ve been poisoned enough in my lifetime by numb, selfish smokers. Thanks for your article.

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