In the 21st century, we may be tempted to assume we know what is best for us as a society from understanding science and politics. We may at times feel immune to “fake news” or media bias because we have been educated to be cautious of it. However, it is critical that we look at the reality of the past, and how easily our perceptions can be shaped and shifted to fit new information- information that may not always be completely accurate. As humans, we naturally tend to gravitate towards what we want to hear, and we have seen through history how advertising companies will use that to their advantage to manipulate consumers. One of the most obvious examples of this is America’s general opinion on the use of tobacco products. One quick glance at a photograph of a 1950’s diner will tell you all you need to know about the old American perception of cigarettes (each booth had its own ash tray).
This brief article goes into detail about some of the places people were allowed to smoke: https://www.chathamdailynews.ca/2013/02/13/remember-when-you-could-smoke-anywhere-and-everywhere/wcm/45d555f4-853d-975e-c3a9-a3cb53a80284
For a long time, smoking was considered a trendy pastime for men and women alike, regardless of age or occupation. It wasn’t until recently that medical evidence was pushed forward to warn against the long-term effects smoking can have on the body. Without this evidence, it is reasonable for anyone to fall prey to the vogue and take up the unhealthy habit themselves. However, we cannot ignore the massive impact cigarette advertisements had during the process. Any shred of doubt a young, socially-inclined individual had about the safety of cigarettes would be instantly dissolved the moment they saw a physician holding up a pack in the newspaper, claiming health benefits and encouraging the activity.
Tobacco, in its many forms, undeniably became a significant part of American culture for years, fueled by the production and marketing from competing companies across the country. Depictions of chic women smoking in cocktail dresses and men in business suits promised a sense of sophistication and social adeptness for those who chose to hop on the bandwagon. Beyond the individual, the tobacco smoking culture was so widely accepted that these images really represented the image of America at that time: young, independent, and classy. As a young country, we were, and still are trying to determine and create what we want our perception to the rest of the world to look like. The 20th century was a time of innovation and development, not only for manufacturers and transportation, but for the country as a character in world history with its own mythology.
Ira Chernus puts it best in his essay, “The Meaning of ‘Myth’ In the American Context”:
“Our national myths draw on empirical facts from all aspects of public life — political, economic, cultural, moral, and more — and create a complex interplay among them, creating a sense of the nation and its life as a unified, harmonious whole.”
Chernus’s ideas can be applied to an artifact as simple as a cigarette ad. Such a seemingly insignificant piece of history played a major role in shaping the style of American culture and perception, leading directly to its ever-evolving mythology. As our “sense of the nation” transforms, the general population is vulnerable to influence about the cognizant matters that shape American mythology.