Consult the cards

Who says that advertising can’t be educational? A series of cigarette cards from the 1930s proved remarkably prescient, providing a glimpse of things to come. Liz Farrelly enjoys a book that brings them to light

Put on your fortune-telling goggles, peer into the future, and you may see the moment when cigarettes become obsolete. It could happen. After all, back in the early 1960s when the Royal College of Surgeons highlighted smoking as a health risk and called for restrictions on tobacco advertising, who’d have believed that one day lighting up in pubs would actually be banned?

It took almost half a century to eventually knock cigarette advertising on the head. An earlier victim of the tobacco industry’s changing marketing strategies – targeting women smokers and new territories rather than men and boys on the home front – was the demise of the much-cherished cigarette card. Like trainspotting, the collecting, trading and coveting of cigarette cards didn’t appeal to the ladies. Plus, the subject matter didn’t always travel well, as it was often culturally and geographically specific, depicting topics such as local sporting heroes and great moments in the history of the British Empire.

After an esteemed run of almost a century, with its heyday being the interwar years, the practice of promoting brand loyalty via series of richly illustrated cards backed with gung-ho copy, had died out by the 1970s, minus the odd collector’s club reissue. That cards are still bought and sold by ephemera collectors is testament to their graphic quality and their ability to transport us to a long-gone world.

A new book, Prophets of Zoom, compiled by a respected practitioner and chronicler of the advertising industry, Alfredo Marcantonio, features an entire set of cards, published in the 1930s by Scottish cigarette maker Stephen Mitchell & Son. The World of Tomorrow series looked optimistically to the future. While atypical in its subject matter, it is perhaps of more interest to a contemporary audience than the more jingoistic stuff. A mix of science fiction, engineering wonders of the world and nascent technologies, it features houses built of glass, wind-turbine stations, thought-detecting machines and mechanical men, via a mixture of illustrations, film stills and photography culled from various sources, including Alexander Korda’s 1936 film, Things to Come.

Matching each of the cards to a present-day image and adding some science-fact text, Marcantonio reveals the majority of the pre-war predictions as spot on. That scientists were investigating means to harness the power of nature and conserve resources, and were aware of the fragility of planet Earth, makes the fact that we’re still slaves to the internal combustion engine rather disappointing. And while most of the predictions correspond to a current innovation, there are a few amusing non-starters. ‘Rocket post’ may not have taken off, but who’d have thought that we’d be sending letters down phone lines?

Marcantonio was first shown this series of cards by a work colleague, back in the late 1970s, and set about getting permission to reprint them in a book. ‘I still have the letter; it is dated 9 March 1983,’ he recalls. ‘The concept of novelty Christmas books hadn’t dawned on anyone else. So I spent years failing to interest a publisher in the project, but I collected loads of references and cuttings and did a bit of research on the Internet.’

Neither a science nerd nor a card collector himself, Marcantonio was always convinced that he was on to a good thing. ‘As a copywriter and creative director you develop a nose for what people will respond to,’ he says. ‘I just knew that people would like this book.’ Eventually, the publishing industry caught on to the profitability of gift books.

As a marketing device, card series had a lot to offer, in terms of ‘edu-tainment’ value. That they were consigned to obsolescence while cigarette advertising went on to bigger and slicker things reveals much about the hard-sell techniques of both the tobacco companies and their one-time lackey, the advertising industry.

Prophets of Zoom by Alfredo Marcantonio is published by Merrell on 10 September, priced £7.95

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