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By Felicity Clarke, Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO – It´s a new year, a new decade even, and the only way to start is by making a variety of pledges to ditch the bad habits and become the saint-like being that´s been hidden underneath the chocolate wrappers, beer bottles and cigarette packets.

Retro Tobacco Advertising Exhibition at CAIXA, image by CAIXA.
Retro Tobacco Advertising Exhibition at CAIXA, image by lane.stanford.edu/tobacco/index.html.

Along with getting fit, losing weight and spending more time with friends and family, quitting smoking is one of the most popular new year´s resolutions. There is a good reasoning behind it: stopping smoking the single most important thing you can do to improve your health.

We know this. That smoking is bad for you is common knowledge. It is a universally accepted fact that through endless science and public health warnings is now an ingrained part of our collective attitude to smoking, whether a smoker of not.

It´s taken a while to arrive at this point and the exhibition of early to mid 20th century cigarette advertising on the ground floor at CAIXA Cultural on Avenida Almirante Barroso in Centro shows just how far.

Organised by the US universities Stanford and Harvard Medical School, the exhibition features tobacco posters and magazine advertising and showed in various US cities including New York and Boston before opening in Rio last November.

Initially the commercials amuses more than anything. Images of babies exclaiming “Gee mommy you sure enjoy your Marlboro” and Santa Claus extolling the throat soothing virtues of Lucky Strike can only appear laughable in a contemporary context.

Indeed, from this more knowledgeable perspective the entire exhibition material is humorous. The work and commentary is simply arranged by methods used by advertisers such as family imagery, celebrity and medical profession endorsement and proposed health benefits. Gems of now-outlandish nonsense include the advice “Throat sensitive? Smoke Kool” and “Reach for Lucky Strike instead” as a way to lose weight.

Retro Tobacco Advertising Exhibition at CAIXA, image by CAIXA.
Retro Tobacco Advertising Exhibition at CAIXA, image by lane.stanford.edu/tobacco/index.html.

The exhibition goes beyond the amusing however, as any exhibition dealing with a major public health problem should. While the accompanying commentary material (in Portuguese) tells a simple history of tobacco advertising, the works speak for themselves of the social and cultural history of smoking and the manipulative desperation of the tobacco industry to maintain the image of their product.

They also speak of the power of advertising and the credibility of information in the public domain. One poster reads “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette”. Another for Chesterfield uses a storyboard of Frank Sinatra at various stages of smoking a cigarette. The farcity of these messages is now known but the danger of them lies in their context and how they would have been viewed at the time.

Although many of the images are only 60 or 70 years old, they show a stark distance in commonly held beliefs and attitudes. What is promising, perhaps when we think about current scientific issues debates, is how quickly the official mainstream dialogue on these things can change and how deeply these messages can alter the collective psyche.

Until 17 January 2010. CAIXA Cultural, Avenida Almirante Barroso, 25, Centro. Open Tuesdays to Saturdays 10AM to 10PM, Sundays 10AM to 9PM. Entrance free.

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