Selling Menthol: On Keith Wailoo’s “Pushing Cool”

October 31, 2021   •   By Vesper North

Pushing Cool: Big Tobacco, Racial Marketing, and the Untold Story of the Menthol Cigarette

Keith Wailoo

WHY ARE Black smokers drawn to menthol cigarettes? In a 2004 comedy sketch, Dave Chappelle posed as a game show host, quizzing contestants on just that question. One responds hesitantly, “I don’t — I don’t know.” The bell dings. “That is correct,” Chappelle says.

Except that’s not entirely true. Somebody knows.

According to Keith Wailoo, author of Pushing Cool: Big Tobacco, Racial Marketing, and the Untold Story of the Menthol Cigarette, advertising consultants advised their tobacco clients in 1971 that African Americans were “open to exploitation” and lived in neighborhoods that provided “new opportunities in the menthol cigarette market.”

Wailoo examines how the tobacco industry framed Black people as a niche market and the industry’s evolution — its secrets, practices, and power. They “worked so hard to create, nurture, and sustain” smoking preferences and thus birthed the Black menthol stereotype. Prior to the industry’s decision to push the Black market, “‘Negro smokers […] had less experience with Menthol cigarettes than have all smokers.’ In fact, 45 percent of African American smokers surveyed reported a dislike for the menthol taste, well above the 30 percent of all smokers who reported such a distaste.” A people were studied and manipulated into choosing menthols.

Smoking has been a staple of American society for generations — whether tobacco, marijuana, or vape. It surrounds adult life. In the book’s early pages, Wailoo relays his exposure to smoking:

I grew up in New York City in the 1970s in the era of blaxploitation — a term coined during my early years, describing a new genre of Black-themed films like Super Fly (1972) that trafficked in garish stereotypes of urban street life filled with criminality, sex, and new heights of coolness.

Cigarette ads were banned from airing on the radio or television, so “New York was saturated with tobacco posters on buses and subways.” Wailoo became “wary of pushers looking to get kids […] ‘hooked on dope.’” And cigarettes were no exception: “I knew that smokers were also addicts, even if of a less threatening sort, hooked on a legal drug.” Wailoo’s diligent research leaves little room for conjecture, making a coherent and engaging story out of a century of conversations, advertising, and activism for and against smoking. He explains:

Many of the sources for this book comes from this Tobacco Truth Industry Documents archive, offering unprecedented insight into the machinations of preference formation. Other sources included the personal papers of influencers like Ernest Dichter, founder of the Institute for Motivational Research and renowned consultant across multiple industries, as well as the papers of critics such as Vance Packard; newspaper coverage over the century; medical and scientific writing on menthol as a drug, medicine, and flavor; evidence gathered in congressional hearings, regulatory settings, and other court cases; the vast advertising and business literature; and archival collections relating to billboard advertising and Kool jazz festivals.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the astringent chemical menthol “appeared in multiple varieties — as a snuff, as a lozenge, as menthol pencil, and also as menthol sprays for bathing the sickroom in a soothing mist.” Doctors of the 1910s used it as a painkiller. Advertisements were already promoting menthol cigarettes, “known for the minty cool sensation they produced on the throat,” as a more comfortable alternative. These ads, like the Kool ad here, are featured throughout the book:

Had it not been for the Great War, the menthol cigarette may have never crept into existence. The Puritan prejudice that fueled the Prohibition movement tried to rope tobacco in too, but soldiers abroad found comfort in cigarettes. The Salvation Army (who formerly vilified cigarettes) became “one of the world’s largest distributors.”

Once the “cancer scare” hit in the 1950s, smokers saw menthol cigarettes as the alternative to quitting. It began “when a study by Ernest Wynder and Evarts Graham in the Journal of the American Medical Association announced a strong association between smoking and lung cancer.” The report riled Big Tobacco, but they went to obfuscation and distraction. Menthol became the “health cigarette.”

After ads to young people were banned, advertisers turned to the Black community. A memo from advertising firm Dancer Fitzgerald Sample, Inc. to cigarette manufacturer R. J. Reynolds outlined a plan called “Camel Menthol and the Negro Market” aimed at “the influence of barbers, bellhops, and influential people to shape community smoking preferences.” The reasoning behind this plan: “Negroes tend to gravitate to groups.” The industry cultivated “deep relationships with civic organizations, Black news media, and opinion leaders — intent on cultivating Black buyers, and focusing its marketing on struggling cities.”

Wailoo allows the proponents to speak for themselves, and takes on the tough question that hangs over the pages of Pushing Cool: didn’t Black people choose to smoke? Wailoo quotes Malcolm X, who once said, “You are not a drug addict accidentally. Why, the white man maneuvers you into drug addiction.” This echoes the rallying cry of the anti-smoking front while others have professed loyalty to Big Tobacco. As former Representative Edolphus Towns put it, “The question is what one would like to die by.”

Of all the brands, Philip Morris did especially well among the Black population, which perplexed the company, so executives sent researchers to the streets to conduct interviews. “One grocery store owner in New York (a man with a business degree) explained it simply: Philip Morris had employed Black people, and its employment practices had helped sales.” Once the okay was given, Black models appeared in magazine ads, showing up on posters and billboards. Kool, in particular, appealed to Black men. Chicago-based entrepreneur Herbert Coverdale Jr. (a trained psychologist), said that “to ‘have cool’ or to ‘be cool’ is valued by blacks. For the black male it has strong connotations of being ‘in control’ and ‘having it together.’” In a stroke of deadly irony, it’s been robbing Black men of breath.

Pushing Cool crescendos into a moral debate where Black figures of influence push against and pull closer to smoking. “Big Tobacco’s hold on Black media, civil rights leaders, and urban consumerism exposed a paradox — whether to embrace the industry’s economic clout for the sake of jobs and opportunity, even if the embrace meant sacrificing health.” The death of Eric Garner in 2014, killed by the police after being suspected of selling loose cigarettes without tax stamps, lifted up this debate with Reverend Al Sharpton at the helm:

Sharpton defended menthol smoking with a new argument tailored for the era of Black Lives Matter and protests over unwarranted police killings of Black people. He claimed that a ban would put Black lives at risk by driving menthol smoking underground, handing police another reason to aggressively harass and potentially kill Black people.

But not all see it as Sharpton does. George Floyd died outside “the best place in town to buy menthol cigarettes,” linking two prime killers of Black men. The final chapter ends with Wailoo’s personal assessment, asserting that these “agents have been depriving Black people disproportionately of life and breath.” Are cigarettes to blame? That moral quandary Wailoo leaves for the reader to ponder — he merely shows the connection.

Big Tobacco will prey on anyone, as long as there’s cash in their wallet and a set of lungs in their chest. “As Dichter put it,” writes Wailoo, quoting the psychologist and marketing expert, “‘No matter what happens, people will probably go on smoking,’ and so ‘the advertiser who will help the smoker in his re-examination of smoking will have the edge. He must prove that he is on the side of the smoker.’” Pushing Cool proves that Wailoo stands firmly on the side of the people, aiming to educate for the health and well-being of all.

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Vesper North is a writer and artist who teaches English and communication and is a member of the TAB Journal staff.