By Amira Jarmakani, Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies

With the current climate around tobacco-related products—for example, bans on smoking in most public places, including some open-air spaces, and the increasingly graphic mandatory warnings about how tobacco kills on cigarette packs—one of the only contemporary reminders of positive cultural attitudes toward smoking is probably in the popular AMC series Mad Men (which, I’m sure scholars have argued, is part of its appeal). When one thinks about the post-WWII boom of cigarette culture, represented in the show, a few key brands likely come to mind—Marlboro, Lucky Strike, and Camel among them.  Focusing on an earlier period of cigarette history, however, gives some interesting context to the current state of the industry.


1916. R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. Courtesy of Stanford University.


At the turn of the century, in the early 1900s, a new kind of tobacco leaf was introduced into the industry.  Whereas prominent tobacco companies (like American Tobacco Co. and R.J. Reynolds) had previously used a blend of domestic tobacco leaves—called Bright and Barley—the early 1900s saw the introduction of a Turkish tobacco leaf into the industry. As a luxury product, Turkish blend cigarettes were associated with sophistication and civilization, and advertisers therefore sought ways to distinguish and highlight Turkish blend from the domestic blend competitors. As a result, orientalist imagery in both tobacco brands and advertisements exploded. In these early days, one major company might diversify their offerings of cigarettes into many different brands, which is one reason why the amount of Middle East-related brands featuring orientalist imagery could also grow so quickly. In a matter of a decade, consumers saw the following brands added to their selection: Omar, Fatima, Hassan, Mogul, Mecca, Egyptian Deities, Murad, Harem Blends, Egyptian Beauties, and many more. The advertising schemes that accompanied these brands deftly combined orientalist mystique with classic U.S. nationalist mythology.  For example, one of The American Tobacco Company’s brands, Omar, capitalized on the contemporaneous interest in Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, due to an anniversary-related reprinting of a famous translation of the early Persian poet’s work. The imagery in the ads therefore incorporates classic orientalist themes, like reclining odalisques (made famous in French orientalist painting), belly dancing, and harem girls, at the same time that it communicates a classic U.S. nationalist identification with natural landscapes and conquering wild, rugged terrain—the exotic East meets the Wild West.


1910. American Tobacco Company. Courtesy of Stanford University.


Some might wonder why Camel does not feature as much orientalist imagery in its earlier days; when I began research on this period of tobacco advertising, I certainly expected to find a good deal of orientalist imagery in the Camel ads. What I discovered is that when R.J. Reynolds introduced Camel in 1913, they were embarking on an experiment that would change the nature of marketing in the industry. Rather than diversify their products into several different brands that would be marketed to many different niches, they pooled their resources into promoting Camel as their signature brand. As a result, I surmised, they couldn’t afford to concentrate only on orientalist imagery since they needed to make the broadest appeal possible.  Instead, they toned down the Middle East-related imagery (letting the Camel speak for itself as a representation of the brand as a Turkish blend), and focused on defining the cigarette as a refined one appropriate for marking oneself as a member of the cultured and elite society. A good dramatization of how R.J. Reynolds crafted Camel as a game-changing product can actually be seen in the evolution of Marlboro.  Though the Camel revolution in the cigarette industry eventually led Phillip Morris to develop Marlboro into the product we know it is today—the symbol of the rugged, individualistic, self-made icon of masculinity—in its earliest incarnation it was marketed as a cigarette for women. One of its key selling points was the fact that it came with a red-tinted filter, so that lipstick stains would not show. The company could only afford to market the early Marlboro brand in such a narrow way because it had so many other offerings to reach already established consumers.


1914. Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company. Courtesy of Stanford University.


What happened to orientalist imagery in cigarettes?  If they still use Turkish tobacco, why isn’t there more orientalist imagery in current tobacco-related advertising? There is some limited orientalist imagery in contemporary tobacco advertising—Camel’s “7 pleasures of the exotic” ad scheme in the early 2000s is a good case in point, as it featured silhouetted images of harem girls and belly dancers. However, as I argue in my book Imagining Arab Womanhood: The Cultural Mythology of Veils, Harems, and Belly Dancers in U.S. Popular Culture, orientalist imagery could work to generally signify exoticism in early tobacco ads because the U.S. at the time did not have an antagonistic relationship to the region. As the Ottoman Empire lost traction in what we now call the Middle East, Britain and France were rising as colonialist powers that divided the area into nation-states (in the famous Sykes-Picot agreement). Most U.S.-based associations with the region at the time were related to an interest in an imagined Holy Land. By contrast, the contemporary context is one in which it would be impossible to only associate the Middle East with exoticism, since the associations of terrorism and violence are much more prominent.  These negative associations do not make good fodder for advertising a luxury and lifestyle product like tobacco.

As for the early context, the explosion of orientalist imagery in tobacco ads dropped off as the world turned its attention to the first World War. Many of these ads, prominent in the 1910s, disappeared by the end of the decade and were replaced with ads that focused on the nation’s role in the war, and on the patriotic idea of supporting the troops (who received cigarettes as part of their rations while deployed). Nevertheless, they remain an important part of both tobacco and advertising history, and one that continues to help us think about the impact and meaning of orientalist imagery.

Adapted from Imagining Arab Womanhood: The Cultural Mythology of Veils, Harems, and Belly Dancers (NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) – see chapter 3, “Selling Little Egypt: The Commodification of Arab Womanhood,” in particular.