Notes From the Ashtray

Lucy, You Got Some Smokin' to Do

Dylan Gyles

I Love Lucy was a tremendously successful American sitcom in the 1950s. The premise for the show was based around the real marriage of model-actress Lucille Ball and her Cuban bandleader husband Desi Arnaz. It was common for television shows of this era to have weekly sponsors and obvious product placement, but I Love Lucy was unique when it first premiered because it was sponsored entirely by Philip Morris cigarettes, which gave them tremendous sway over creative content.

The First episode of I Love Lucy, aired on Oct. 15, 1951, opened with Johnny Roventini, a Philip Morris product spokesman, dressed as a bellboy holding a pack of cigarettes and shouting their slogan “Call for Philip Morris!” The scene transitions to an animation of Lucy and Desi repelling down the side of a box of Philip Morris cigarettes. The “I Love Lucy” title card briefly appears before shifting back to a live action shot of another Philip Morris spokesman taking a long drag on a cigarette. He promises the show will start soon, but first he has to ask you a very personal question: “Do you inhale?” He then explains the scientific details of exactly why you’re better off smoking Philip Morris, America’s finest cigarette: it’s been proven to be less irritating and milder than any other leading brand. The actual title and credits for the show only take up ten seconds of the two and a half minute intro.

Commercial breaks always included Philip Morris ads featuring Lucy and Desi. In one ad the couple enjoys a goodnight cigarette in matching pyjamas, in another they retrieve a carton of king size Philip Morris from a wall safe, reminding the audience that Philip Morris leaves you with no cigarette hangover.

Lucy and Desi constantly smoke throughout the show, as do their friends Fred and Ethel. If a scene does not open with cigarettes already lit, one of the characters eventually announces something along the lines of “Let’s all have a cigarette,” and everyone pulls out a pack of Philip Morris, making sure to show the audience the packet art or even announce the brand name out loud. Several seconds usually pass in which there is no dialogue, just smiles of intense pleasure and a thick plume of smoke exhalation.

Cigarettes are presented as an indulgence in I Love Lucy; much of Lucille Ball’s physical comedy stems from over indulgence. Cigarettes are often seen dangling off the saucers of coffee cups after a large meal or hanging on the edge of an ashtray next to a glass of wine. Philip Morris wanted to depict their cigarettes as a kind of dessert.

The conspicuous cigarette use in I Love Lucy blurs the boundary between the fictional world of the characters and the real world on a set with actors and a sponsor. In one moment Lucy and Desi are engaged in conversation and then, suddenly, they are smoking, no longer making eye contact, facing the camera more than each other and speaking lines which are totally inconsistent with their characters. In the episode “Lucy Does a TV Commercial,” Lucy, trying to convince her husband of her acting talent, climbs inside the compartment box of her television, dresses up as a bell boy and reenacts the Johnny Roventini ad that plays during the opening credits. Whenever she lights up a cigarette, Lucy briefly step out of character and becomes Lucille Ball, an enthusiastic proponent of Philip Morris cigarettes.

When the show became successful, it found new sponsors and its financial dependence on Philip Morris dropped, along with their constant product placement and ads. Of course the characters still smoked occasionally, but they no longer took such pains to show off the brand they smoked.

Lucille Ball was a heavy smoker her entire life and had no moral qualms about advertising for a cigarette company. Her only objection was that she did not like Philip Morris, she smoked Chesterfields. While on set one day in early production, Lucille was caught smoking Chesterfields by a Phillip Morris rep and told she couldn’t ever be seen smoking a rival brand. Lucille henceforth carried her Chesterfields around in a Philip Morris tin box and continued to smoke them incognito.

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Dylan Gyles

Dylan Gyles is a writer and barista. He writes short fiction and creative non-fiction. He is originally from Winnipeg and now lives in Vancouver.


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