• Image: Canadian Geographic Archive

Certain types of ads have long been gone from the pages of Canadian Geographic, but it’s fascinating to dip into archival issues and see how much — or how little — has changed in the world of advertising over the course of the magazine’s history. I find cigarette ads particularly compelling, partly because they’re so rarely seen in magazines today and partly because it’s interesting to see how something that everyone today knows can kill you was marketed way back when.

Take the January 1931 issue of the Canadian Geographical Journal, for instance. In it, an ad for Player’s Navy Cut cigarettes shows two square-jawed, Hollywood-golden-age-handsome naval officers under the word “COMMANDING” preparing to light up their smokes. “It’s the tobacco that counts,” the ad copy reminds readers.

Decipher to your heart’s content what the message might be here — that powerful men smoke Player’s, that you can establish your reputation as a powerful man by smoking Player’s, that tobacco purists need look no further than Player’s — then think about this: Player’s didn’t think it needed to do much more than stroke a man’s ego to sell him cigarettes. Indeed, the only nod to any material benefit in buying a pack of Navy Cuts (apart from the “quality and purity” of the tobacco itself, of course) is the italicized aside that whispers they’re available with “cork tipped or plain ends.”

That’s quite a contrast to the ad readers see three pages later. It shows a smiling young woman (Is she a housewife? A secretary? A school teacher?) holding two packs of MacDonald’s Blends, “honeyed” cigarettes that cost 25 cents for a pack of 21 and “pay” — as in “dividends in that extra cigarette in each package; in satisfying smoke-pleasure; in premiums or CASH if you redeem the panel front.” No claims of quality or purity here — just assurances of “more for your quarter than any make of blended cigarettes.”

Like the Player’s ad, which didn’t mention the price of Navy Cuts, MacDonald’s was selling an idea — not of reputation or quality but of thrift.