RICHMOND -- There he is, the picture of American male vigor as he appeared in magazines in 1944 -- a helmeted GI, cigarette in hand, smiling broadly as he assured his audience, "You bet Camels are first with me."
And there she is, Lucky Strike's version of the feminine ideal as she appeared in glossy publications four decades later -- a lean, shapely mistress of the double-entendre, who invites potential consumers to "Light my Lucky."
For a full century now the tobacco industry has been using smoke to sell smoke, presenting hazy visions of sexual success and personal fulfillment to stimulate the national appetite for its addictive product. A panorama of these manipulative images is on display in this city's Valentine Museum in a provocative exhibit, "Smoke Signals: Cigarettes, Advertising and the American Way of Life."
Curator Jane Webb Smith uses tobacco as the vehicle for a sharp, cynical exploration of the way in which the consumer culture has shaped and exploited American values.
The exhibit -- which consists of audiovisual displays, advertising posters and various smoking artifacts -- touches only peripherally on the controversy over tobacco and physical health. Instead, "Smoke Signals" is most directly concerned with issues of civic health: What are the consequences for a society in which advertising so dominates the culture, inventing images and manufacturing desires with such precision?
It's a study not so much of tobacco as of old-fashioned American baloney.
"Smoke Signals" opened in April and runs through October, and the exhibit makes an excellent centerpiece for an excursion to this city, an easy trip 100 miles or so south down I-95. Within a few blocks of the Valentine are other attractions, such as the White House of the Confederacy, which holds a Civil War museum, and the Virginia State Capitol, designed by Thomas Jefferson in 1790.
These surroundings, in a city whose past has been so intimately linked with the Golden Leaf, are an apt setting in which to study the tobacco industry in historical context. Even today, the Philip Morris Co. is Richmond's largest private employer; its plant here annually produces billions of Marlboro cigarettes, the world's most popular brand.
It was Philip Morris that pulled off one of the great advertising triumphs in modern consumer history. In 1955, a time when many people thought filtered cigarettes were for women or sissies, Marlboros had a soft image and soft sales.
Then the Marlboro Man made his debut. The cowboy, the classic American icon, was appropriated to identify cigarettes as something with which rugged, independent-minded consumers -- most of them not cowboys, and (increasingly) not all of them men -- should want to be associated. The public bought the image, and bought the cigarettes. Philip Morris's worldwide tobacco revenues in 1989 were $17.8 billion.
"Smoke Signals" argues that this kind of incessant salesmanship was a consequence of the industrial advances of the late 19th century. The cigarette rolling machine, invented in 1880 by James Albert Bonsack, could roll 117 cigarettes a minute, compared with a pace of about five per minute set by the fastest human workers.
The conservative owners of Richmond's Allen & Ginter Co., who distrusted nearly all changes since the Civil War, couldn't see how there would be a market for such vast quantities of cigarettes. They let the rights to the machine slip to a visionary North Carolinian, James Buchanan Duke, who knew that modern marketing could be used to create demand where none existed.
Richmond remained an employment hub of the tobacco industry, but from then on it was not the home port for the bulk of its profits. Today, the exhibit notes, most of the bounty from Marlboros still is shifted out of the city to other parts of the Philip Morris empire.
"Smoke Signals" elicits an odd mix of reactions. On one level, there's a layer of corniness that's good for some laughs. It's amusing to look at a 1950s television commercial (cigarettes weren't banished from the airwaves until 1971) featuring a ditsy, submissive housewife and think that this image was used to flatter women into smoking. Also entertaining is a 1937 Lucky Strike poster in which a youthful Gary Cooper explains, "It's common sense for me to prefer Luckies."
Still, the dominant mood of "Smoke Signals" is brooding and skeptical. Curator Smith sees the success of the tobacco industry's promotionalism as a metaphor for a broader affliction of 20th-century consumerism. Can classic virtues like individualism, thrift and concern for the common good thrive in a material age?
Smith obviously has her doubts. Posters on the wall at the exhibit assert that "Consumerism Has Con- sumed Us," and "Yuppies Turned Materialism Into a Religion." In an illustrated 51-page companion guide to the exhibit, Smith comments that "the rampant consumption" of the 1950s evolved naturally into the massive government deficits of today.
"The one-hundred year transformation," Smith writes, "from the 19th century producer economy to the 1980s culture of immediate gratification have turned the United States into a debtor nation with shrinking production resources." Smith could certainly get an argument on some of these points. But one needn't embrace her baleful verdict on the consumer age to be intrigued and provoked by this worthwhile presentation.
The Valentine Museum is at 1201 E. Clay St., two blocks north of Broad Street, which is reached by Exit 10 off Interstate 95. It is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.