Copywriting Examples #01:
How These Old Cigarette Ads Went Viral and Sold 425 Million Cigarettes
In this #01 issue, you’re going to discover how RJ Reynolds made tobacco advertising history. Using the four simple tobacco ads I’m going to break down for you, he sold over 425 million cigarettes in just a year. To put that into perspective, that is:
- 35.4 million cigarettes a month
- 1.1 million cigarettes a day
- 808 cigarettes (over 40 packs) per minute
At an average price of 0.5 cents (yes, half a penny) a cigarette, Camel Cigarettes launched to first-year sales of $2.1MM (a whopping $56MM today).
These results from these four old cigarette ads shook the entire tobacco industry. And it made Camel the No. 1 cigarette brand for the next 15 years (until the Lucky Strike ads in Copywriting Examples Issue #14 changed that).
This is possibly the first viral ad campaign ever made.
In this issue of Copywriting Examples, I’ll share the R.J. Reynolds story, break down the exact ads he used to set tobacco advertising history, and the exact lessons you can use to become a better copywriter today.
RJ Reynolds and The Story of Camel Cigarettes
In 1850, Richard Joshua Reynolds was born in Virginia, USA to Hardin and Nancy Reynolds. Hardin was a tobacco farmer and Richard became fond of the tobacco business from helping his father.
In 1874, Reynolds sold his share of the family business to his father. He left home and moved to Winston, North Carolina, because he needed a railroad hub for his business. Winston happened to be the closest one.
At Winston, he started his first tobacco manufacturing operation. In its first year, it produced 150,000 pounds of tobacco. Far surpassing the 15 other tobacco companies in the area. Reynolds separated himself from his competitors using business smarts and innovation. The biggest example of this is adding saccharin (artificial sweetener) to chewing tobacco.
In 1913, Reynolds had a simple idea: “What if tobacco users had cigarettes already rolled for them?” At the time, almost all tobacco users that smoked cigarettes rolled their own. Nobody was selling the pre-packed cigarettes we know today.
Reynolds created 4 brands:
- Red Kamel, and
Reyno was for All-American smokers. Osman, Red Kamel and Camel all used a blend with Turkish tobacco (hence the Middle Eastern branding). In all 4 brands, he believed he’d perfected the right blend of tobacco to appeal as a national cigarette.
Details about the other brands are hazy. But what we do know is this. Reynolds favoured the Camel brand. He went straight to the largest marketing firm, N.W. Ayer & Son. He offered them $250,000 ($6.5MM today) to launch Camel (with the old cigarette ads I’m about to share with you).
… And they said no.
N.W Ayer & Son: The Ad Agency That Refused $6.5MM Dollars of Tobacco Advertising
RJ Reynolds met with an Account Executive named Armistead. When offered the $250,000 ($6.5MM today) to do a tobacco campaign, he turned it down.
Well, not the reason you think. N.W. Ayer & Son wasn’t against running smoking ads or tobacco ads.
While it is true that all those around the Reynolds Tobacco Company who have tried the new cigarette think it is a great blend, some of them may have expressed that belief because they thought it would please you, Mr. Reynolds.
If you spend a quarter million dollars on that cigarette – and the public does not like it – you will kill the brand, as well as lose a quarter million dollars. Public approval is the only way to test the product.
If this cigarette will not sell without advertising – it certainly will not sell with advertising.William Martin Armistead
Armistead taught RJ Reynolds a basic truth about copywriting: You cannot make someone want a crappy product.
So instead of burning all that money, the ad agency recommended Reynolds do a soft launch. They recommended he send a carton of Camel cigarettes to 125 retail shops in Cleveland and only count repeat orders.
And repeat, they did.
To be sure, Reynolds tested Camel cigarettes across America. And indeed Camel cigarettes had repeat sales everywhere. Armed with this information, Reynolds set up distribution deals and went back to N.W. Ayer & Son.
These Four Old Cigarette Ads Became The First Viral Tobacco Ads in Tobacco Advertising History
This issue of Copywriting Examples is on the “Camels Are Coming” campaign. It was a series of four simple, (usually) full-page ads that were run over four days or so.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these vintage cigarette ads.
Camel Advertising – Tobacco Ad 1 of 4
Nothing about the product.
Nothing about the company.
Nothing about even smoking or tobacco.
Just a full-page illustration of an animal that people may have heard of, but nobody had ever seen before. Remember, this is 1913.
The camel you see here is named Old Joe and was part of the Barnum & Bailey circus. RJ Reynolds got lucky that the circus was in town and he quickly sent a photographer to grab a photo of the animal. This photo got turned into an illustration and has been used by Camel ever since.
Back to the ad, the sole goal is to grab the reader’s attention with something unusual and plant the brand in their mind. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Camel Advertising – Tobacco Ad 2 of 4
An exotic animal and now a simple caption “The Camels are coming!”
This caption is inspired by possibly one of three sources:
- The Scottish song named “The Campbells are coming”
- The famous words of Paul Revere, “The British are coming”
- The Bible verse of Genesis 24:63, “lifted up his eyes, and saw, and, behold, the camels were coming.”
It’s not definitive where exactly it came from. You pick what you’d like to believe.
Now, this ad starts creating questions: “Wait, what? When? Why? How many? Who is bringing them?”
Remember, this was in newspapers. Being so vague, it creates an open loop of unanswered questions and will keep it in your mind.
Camel Advertising – Tobacco Ad 3 of 4
Tomorrow, there’ll be more camels in this town than in all Asia and Africa combined!
You’ve seen the first ad and know what camels look like.
You’ve seen the second ad and know they are coming. But you have lots of unanswered questions.
In this ad, you find out, “Tomorrow, there’ll be more camels in this town than in all Asia and Africa combined!” This one sentence hits a few psychological triggers:
- Urgency: They are coming tomorrow.
- Personal: They are coming to YOUR town.
- Visual: You don’t know exactly how many, but it must be a lot if your town will have more than two faraway continents.
At this point, your entire town is talking about it. Tomorrow comes and everybody wakes up, wondering when the camels are coming.
If you don’t see them in the streets, you’ll obviously check the newspaper to see if there’s any new info. And then you see this…
Camel Advertising – Tobacco Ad 4 of 4
Camel Cigarettes Are Here!
To cigarette smokers of America who smoke 10c, 15c, 20c or 25c cigarettes:
Here are Camels—20 cigarettes for 10 cents—a choice blend of specially selected Turkish and domestic tobaccos!
No man’s money can buy a more delightful cigarette at any price.
High grade tobacco and expert blending gives you a cigarette that will not bite the tongue and leaves no cigaretty taste (you know what that means!) in the mouth.
Every time you buy another brand you’re simply wasting money and pleasure.
On sale all along the line—20 for 10c.
Quite a few things to point out here.
Let’s start with the images. It uses the iconic camel. It shows a picture of itself (cigarette pack) for readers to recognize in stores. It shows a picture of the product in use (lit cigarette) to make it very clear what’s being sold.
The headline finally pays off the previous teaser ads. And being published nationwide in 1913, this might be the oldest example of “clickbait” out there.
The sub-heading is very specific since it calls out cigarette smokers based on how much they spend. From the probably lower-class folks who smoke 5 cent cigarettes all the way to the higher-end premium cigarette buyers.
The body copy uses very descriptive language to send a message of quality. Words such as:
- Choice blend
- Specially selected
- High grade
- Expert blending
And it translates these features into benefits such as:
- A delightful yet affordable experience
- It won’t bite the tongue
- It leaves no cigaretty taste (and notice how that isn’t correct grammar but you understand it anyway)
The biggest selling point of these cigarettes is value for money. You can tell because it’s repeated quite a few times:
- 20 cigarettes for 10 cents mentioned THREE times
- No man’s money can buy a more delightful cigarette at any price
- Every time you buy another brand you’re simply wasting money and pleasure
- There is a tiny paragraph saying no coupons or discounts available because such quality cannot be sold any cheaper.
Lastly, there is a tiny paragraph that gives instructions on how to buy Camel Cigarettes if your shop doesn’t have it. Remember, this is the first commercial “pre-rolled” cigarette and not all shops would have Camel in stock yet.
As a quick recap, RJ Reynolds earned over $2,125,000 in revenue from the first year of launching Camel. That translates to about $65MM today—all from very simply done tobacco ads—making this one of the most successful tobacco advertising campaigns of all time.
With this lead in the budding cigarette market, Reynolds become one of the wealthiest men (and the single biggest taxpayer, paying twice as much as the next guy) in North Carolina. Unfortunately, he died in 1918—just five years after this campaign—from pancreatic cancer.
Key Takeaways – Copywriting Examples #01
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- Be unusual to grab attention. An ad lives or dies by its ability to grab someone by the throat and make them pay attention. Use unusual imagery to grab it, but keep it relevant to your brand/product. Generally, the more universal your product, the more “out there” your imagery can be. This is why tobacco ads can get away with quite broad and varied imagery (i.e. man/woman holding cigarette in just about any context).
- Call out your prospects. Don’t be afraid to call out your prospect in very specific detail. A copywriter can even build an entire headline around calling out a prospect. These old cigarette ads did that by calling out FIVE price points.
- Repetition. Repetition. Repetition. One of the major ways we learn is through repetition. You have a higher chance of leaving a certain impression by saying the same thing often and in different words.
- Use pictures wisely. You can use more than one picture in your ad. Aside from your attention-grabber, you have 3 options: showing your product, showing it in use and showing the benefit of using it.
- Give buying instructions. Tell clients how they can get your product. Even if it’s on the internet and there’s a big, neon green button screaming “Click me!”… tell them to click it and explain what will happen afterwards.
- Copy is a multiplier. A great product with great copy gets amazing results. But a crappy product with stellar copy is doomed to fail.
- Burrough, Bryan, and John Helyar. Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco. Illustrated edition, HarperCollins e-books, 2009.
- Camels: 100 Years and Still Killing – Los Angeles Times
- North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program
- University of California San Franscisco Archives [Ad 2, Ad 4]
- Chronicling America [Ad 3]
Note from Victor: This is a re-issue from of the version I first published on Reddit on August 3rd, 2020.