Tobacco, Alcohol and Gambling: The Evolution of ‘Vice Advertising’

Tobacco, alcohol, gambling, all are vices and all get advertised. The amazing thing about vices, both big and small, is that there has always been a demand for them and there always will be, regardless of the fact that they are not necessities – and thus competition between suppliers (brands) can be quite fierce. Advertising, then, has long been the proven best method of increasing the consumption or participation in vice. Vice advertising, for tobacco, is known to be at least two hundred years old. Alcohol and gambling have also been long a part of our cultural history and our economy. Prior to the industrial revolution, however, the difficulties of production and the limits of travel and shipping, made tobacco and alcohol local cottage industries and gambling simply a part of taverns, parties, and gatherings. After the industrial revolution, however, tobacco products (which had largely been hand made) were now able to be mass produced, packaged, and shipped anywhere in the world. Alcohol was no longer the product of a small local distillery, winery, or brewery, but was a product that could be produced on a massive scale and, also, shipped virtually anywhere in any quantity. Gambling, however, would not become truly formalized until the 1940’s when up shop in Nevada and created the Las Vegas we know today.

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Advertising for gambling, however, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Though gambling was considered to be just as much a part of saloon life as alcohol, call girls and music, it was not until the Las Vegas casinos opened that large-scale vice of every kind became popularly advertised as destination for vacations. Advertising of vice has changed along with advertising for every other product and service. Technology, media outlets, and production quality have all had an impact. but, unlike general advertising, vice-advertising is strictly regulated and even banned in a variety of media outlets. It is the purpose of this paper to examine the history of vice-advertising, how it has paralleled and departed from general advertising, and how regulation has shaped the industry.

The big three vices, tobacco, alcohol and gambling, are widely advertised today in a broad variety of media outlets. Additional vices, such as prostitution, continue to be popular with consumers, but they do not enjoy the ability to be advertised on a wide scale. When it comes to these three, however, there are quite significant differences in how each is advertised, and how each is presented to the consumer. When we look at the history of advertising for tobacco, alcohol and gambling, we can see that vice has never needed or wanted to be subtle. You don’t find cigarette ads hidden in philosophy or metaphors – you see cool people smoking. You don’t beer commercials not showing the beer – you see the people you want to be friends with not drinking their beer, but acting like it’s great. You see people young and old having a grand time in casinos showing the kind of excitement gambling, drinking, smoking, and being entertained can be. Vice advertising is, by its nature, about exciting the appetite, about creating a connection between the consumer and the product that overrides moral objections, titillates, and drives desire – much like any other advertisement does. but, unlike other products, vice has a broad and society-wide taboo about it (though those taboos are very mild). They are “adult” products that are prohibited to a broad section of society (which makes them even more exciting to young and old) and they maintain that position through strict legislation that, at least for the tobacco industry, becomes increasingly strict every year. Even as advertising for and public acceptance of smoking has certainly waned over the past two decades, alcohol and gambling continue to be heavily promoted and, particularly in the case of gambling, the activities of smoking and drinking are cross-promoted.

Vice advertising really began once a particular vice could be exported beyond the boundaries of a community, or when a became available. Looking first at tobacco products, one of the first known tobacco advertisements in America appeared in 1789 with ads in a local New York paper (Pritcher, 2007). At that time, there were really only two forms of advertising – taking out space in the local or regional papers (very few of which were weekly let alone daily) or having pamphlets printed and posted in various places throughout the advertising area. Pamphleting, however, was a rather expensive method of advertising and, thus, was not used widely. Newspapers, however, were exceptionally popular among the literate classes and was, then, a method of getting people with a relatively greater level of education than many of their neighbors to go out of their way to get a particular brand of tobacco. Prior to the Civil War and the industrial revolution, advertising was very much a local pursuit of customers. This was due to the nature of the business: tobacco and alcohol products were made by hand in small batches, roads were not extensive between cities, transportation capacity was very small and quite limited, and though neither product has been very perishable, due to the nature of localization, competition was not very welcome (Quigley, 2006). Therefore, advertising was done primarily to make people aware of a product within their community that they would not have to manufacture themselves. Tobacco growers would make their product available on local markets, individuals would buy the dried and prepared tobacco, and then would make their own cigarettes, snuff, or cigars out of them. but, the effort, quality of product variances, and availability opened the door for businesses specializing in production of tobacco products, offering consistencies of experience that home-made products could not match. Pre-made tobacco products would have, at that time, represented a particular level of spending capability of the user. Clearly, a cigarette made by a local manufacturer would be more expensive than making one’s own. Therefore, a particular cache would have been associated with the use of name-brand products.

These early advertisements, however, were not about branding, as much as promoting a particular manufacturer. Branding would come just before the Civil War and would be associated with the “best” quality of products – stores would carry a supply of local tobacco, of course, but they would also have a supply of the branded products. Consumers, then, like was the case with so many other products started developing brand awareness – and that was when image, brand name, and competition all started driving sales. Bull Durham brand tobacco, for example, got its name and its popularity at the very tail end of the Civil War when, as legend has it, soldiers from both the Union and the Confederacy alike raided a particular Durham, North Carolina tobacco field and, after the war, wrote to the farmer asking for more (Pritcher, 2007).

What the South learned, perhaps more than any other lesson of the Civil War, was that their nearly exclusively agrarian economy could only supply just so much money and profit to the region while the products they grew became hybrid products they would later buy. Tobacco crops and then large scale tobacco-producing companies were formed and started selling throughout the country – rail allowed that. Advertising, then, started taking a sharp up-turn in the daily and other newspapers that would be fed by the rail-roads. Any community with a train station and a telegraph could procure tobacco products from any manufacturer. So, branding, advertising, and market research became a critical component of the tobacco industry.

Over time, tobacco advertising, like other products, started using celebrities: sports figures, politicians, actors, and pundits. These icons became directly tied to the product and, as such, if they commanded respect, so did the products they endorsed.

Tobacco use, which only recently has become a stringently regulated vice, became so prevalent that people who abstained or avoided tobacco were considered to be on the fringe – a state that continued until the mid to late 1980’s.

Tobacco advertising started taking on mascots, the most famous of which is either Joe the Camel or the Marlboro Man. Both icons represent the kind of emotional, spiritual, or physical connection with tobacco that savvy advertisers want to create – if you are attracted to the icon, you’re likely to be attracted to the product as well.

Iconic connections were made, also, through television and movie stars. The Phillip Morris page would appear in many television shows in the 1940’s and 1950’s to connect that company’s products with the stars (Quigley, 2006)

But, over the course of the last two decades, anti-smoking campaigns have resulted in a host of social, legislative, and economic changes that have cut deeply into the pockets of tobacco companies. Desperate for customers, the tobacco companies started lying to the public about the health risks, chemical makeup, and risk of addiction to their products. A ( has had a great deal of success showing how the tobacco companies re-tooled Joe the Camel to become attractive to children, how the heads of the companies sought to deceive the public, and how many people have and will die as a result of tobacco use – all through advertising (Hemphill, 2002).

Ironically, those opposed to smoking used the very same medium to help kill smoking in public places, restaurants, and even cars when children are present (as is the case in several states now). Smoking and tobacco products are a pariah now – no longer the universal symbol of cool, no matter how much money the companies spend on advertising.

The alcohol and gambling industries, on the other hand, have clearly taken a chapter out of the strife facing the tobacco companies and have done some very consistent things over the course of time. First, gambling and alcohol, all of the vices for that matter, have been connected with the adult world. But it is the “sin” of drink that led to prohibition, and the “sin” of gambling that led most states in the nation to outlaw the practice entirely. While tobacco has been considered to be a public nuiscance and an offense to the senses, it is drinking and alcohol addiction that has been seen to absolutely destroy lives. Advertising now, for alcohol, universally contains warnings about setting limits to the drinking, encouragements to select a designated driver, and to keep an eye out for your friends while drinking. but, this is quite a bit in contrast to how alcohol had been advertised in previous decades and even centuries.

Alcohol advertising, like that of tobacco, was relatively unknown until the industrial revolution made mass production and distribution of beer, wine, and spirits beyond local boundaries possible. While alcohol has been part of human existence from the time that the properties of fermentation and distillation were first discovered in pre-Biblical time, branded products requiring creative, attractive, and compelling advertising would not become important to manufacturers until the late 19th century. After the end of the Civil War, the whiskey, rum, and other grain and sugar alcohol producers found that there was a national audience for their products and, unlike tobacco, distillation was not a simple process of hanging leaves to dry.

Again, advertising stressed quality, ease of consumption, and the health benefits of the product. Political, cultural, and other connections were made with particular products. The whiskey brand, Old Dominion, for example, refers to a nickname given to the Confederate states and their pre-war life – thus making it attractive to the south. So too did products like Jim Beam, Johnny Walker and Jack Daniels – whiskey was a (Hemphill, 2002). When television began to be considered a good medium for advertising, alcohol joined in – and advertisements for beer, wine and spirits continue to be popular today. Then, in the 1970’s the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States voluntarily banned advertising on television and radio (so as to not risk advertising to children) – gambling and tobacco had no such compunction. However, that ban lasted only twenty years and, in the mid-1990’s that self-imposed ban was lifted and the quite iconic campaigns for flavored Stoli (vodka), Captain Morgan’s rum, Bailey’s, and Tanqueray Gin became part of our national advertising vocabulary again.

Beer and wine ads, however, have never waned. Beer is as much a part of American life as are the sports it is directly married to. Beer, however, like the specific branding of Whiskey, has been targeted at a particular population – men. Wine coolers, Zima, and other flavored alcohol beverages have been clearly targeted at women, and wine advertising has continued to be aimed at the “discerning” consumer. Beer advertisements show lots of average guys and very hot and sexy women associated with a particular brand (Messner & Montez, 2005). These ads tell men, hey, I can be ugly and still get a girl if I drink Bud! Wine, however, is not a constant part of American daily life to the level it is particularly in the Mediterranean countries such as France and Italy. Wine ads have traditionally shown pastoral scenes, romantic encounters, and relatively “fancy” celebrations – they tell consumers that if they want to be considered sophisticated, they should be drinking beer. The effectiveness of this kind of campaigning has shown itself: you don’t see Paul Masson or Robert Mondavi advertising at the superbowl, and you don’t generally see Beer companies sponsoring ice-skating or the symphony.

Advertising for gambling has a very different, and much shorter, history than either tobacco or alcohol. Gambling became institutionalized in Nevada before the mob discovered Las Vegas. but, it wasn’t until organized crime figures discovered that the industries of vice that they had become so skilled at managing, promoting, and regulating could become of national significance as a perk of a particular destination that gambling became an advertising phenomenon. From the 1950’s until the late 1980’s, casinos in Nevada, New Jersey (Atlantic City) and on sovereign Native American Reservations advertised without restriction in every manner and avenue possible (Messner & Montez, 2005).

The casinos were billed as destination resorts and the “gaming” opportunities as simple and exciting fun to be enjoyed along with big-name entertainment – and these campaigns were hugely successful. The result of advertising on television, radio, and in print resulted in millions of visitors dropping billions of dollars onto slot machines, blackjack tables, and roulette wheels – and then the problem of gambling addiction became a socially significant cause.

As had happened with tobacco, and alcohol, the gambling industry discovered that legislators felt it necessary regulate these advertisements to ensure that they were not targeting children (which was never much of a concern given the fact that children seldom make travel decisions) and that they contained warnings and contact information for gambling addiction. Legislation of vice-advertising has made it so that alcohol and tobacco products may not be advertised on billboards within 300 feet of schools. Laws have prevented the promotion of cigarettes on television. Alcohol cannot be actually consumed or even pretend to be consumed in ads. These and other legislative moves at the local and national levels have resulted in the vice-advertising industry to be severely limited in a way that no other advertising method can be. However, since the advent of the internet, promotion of tobacco, alcohol, and gambling has largely gone entirely unfettered. This is because gambling sites and ad-hosting sites located outside of the United States are not subject to local laws. Therefore, companies who want to promote their product can do so with a fair degree of freedom online.

Vice advertising has always had a struggle – getting people to buy what they don’t need and getting them hooked so as to keep them coming back. Every one of these vices is addictive, every one has a treatment program.

Cars, toys, and suntan lotions do not – which makes them easier, but not quite as exciting, to advertise. Advertising vice requires titillation of one or more senses to such a degree that natural disinclination toward involvement in a vice is overcome, and throughout history, the vice-advertisers have successfully done so.


Hemphill, T.A. (2002). A prohibition on advertising?. Regulation 25:1, p8(3).

Messner, M.A. & Montez, J. (2005). The male consumer as loser: beer and liquor ads in mega sports media events. Signs 30:3, p1879(31).

Pritcher, L. (2007) Tobacco Advertising. Online. Internet. Avail. Info Acc: 11 April, 2007.

Quigley, P.H. (2006). Tobacco’s Civil War: images of the sectional conflict on tobacco package labels. Southern Cultures 12:2, p53(5).