#013: How Lucky Strike Sold More Cigarettes In A Year Than There Are Humans On Earth

1928 Reach For A Lucky Instead Of A Sweet Lucky Strike Cigarette Ad Lord & Thomas Albert Lasker UnfairCopy Header

In 1913, R.J. Reynolds launched Camel cigarettes with the “Camels Are Coming” campaign It was the first ever viral ad in advertising history. And he sold 425 million cigarettes in his first year.

From this campaign, he enjoyed a leading position in the cigarette market. And it wasn’t long until Camel became the number one cigarette in America.

At least, until 1929.

In 1929, Lucky Strike came out of nowhere and sold more than 10 billion cigarettes in a year. Before 1929, Camel was unstoppable. And nobody expected anything from the Lucky Strike brand.

But it took only one campaign to turn it all around.

Here’s how it happened.

Meet James

On December 23, 1856, James Buchanan “Buck” Duke was born. He was born in North Carolina to Washington and Artelia Duke.

Like most business owners we’ve covered from this era (see Sherwin Cody and George Eastman), life wasn’t great.

At 2 years old, his brother and mother died from typhoid. At 5 years old, his father got drafted in the Civil War. So, having nobody to live with, James had to live with relatives.

Luckily, his father survived the war. Washington came back from the war and only had his farm, two blind mules, some dried tobacco and 50 cents. With this, Washington began a small family business selling tobacco. And he started it together with James and his only remaining brother. 

Like most companies at the time, Washington named it after himself and his sons: W. Duke & Sons Co.

They ran this business from their family farm. And business went well. So well that, in 1875, they built a factory.

Records show that James was a very ambitious businessman. He felt that only making tobacco had no real future. He convinced his partners—the company took on a few business partners to build the factory—to get into the cigarette business.

In 1881, the company began making cigarettes… and it failed. Hard.

Because of a tax law, the Duke company couldn’t sell their cigarettes. Their factory closed, leaving a warehouse full of cigarettes and nobody to buy them.

But like I said, James is a very ambitious businessman. When the tax law got sorted out in 1883, he took action. He sold all his cigarettes for half price (5 cents per pack instead of 10). He used that money to reopen the factory. He started advertising. And he continued advertising to keep sales high.

James obsessed about outdoing his competition any way he could.

One of the biggest examples of this happened that same year.

Meet The Other James

Before the 1880s, almost all cigarettes were made by hand. 

In 1881, the Duke company got into the cigarette business. At the same time, a young man named James Bonsack patented a machine for making cigarettes. He spent two years improving this machine. And in 1883, he started the Bonsack Machine Co.

One of James Duke’s competitors bought the machine. They tried it for a few weeks but later sent them back. They thought nobody would like machine-made cigarettes. And the machine didn’t even work too well.

James Duke saw an opportunity.

He leased some of the Bonsack machines. He hired mechanics to improve the machine. And he ignored the idea that customers wouldn’t like machine-made cigarettes.

It took about four years for James Duke’s competitors to wake up and start leasing these machines. By then, he leased so many machines that he made an exclusive discount deal with Bonsack.

The terms?

The Duke company was to get a 25% discount to any price given to any other cigarette company.

Add a 4-year head start, the Duke company was making more cigarettes than any other company. At a lower cost than any other company. The other companies did not like this. Duke set off a cigarette war of companies constantly trying to one-up each other.

But James Duke was quite a visionary. He thought, “Why should we all compete with one another? Let’s team up and own the market.” He began trying to get all the cigarette companies to come together.

After much negotiations, in 1890, he formed the American Tobacco Co.

And James Duke became the president of a monopoly.

The Government Didn’t Like That

In the next 20 years, American Tobacco Co. kept expanding. Like something out of a movie, it kept going to other tobacco companies to make an offer they couldn’t refuse.

The offer was simple: join or die.

And any company that refused? Well, American Tobacco Co. would just sell tobacco at a loss in their region until they bled that company dry.

American Tobacco Co. grew so big, it started buying foreign tobacco companies in Europe. That’s when the government started paying attention. And in 1911, the Supreme Court ordered that American Tobacco be dissolved.

The American Tobacco Co. was now broken into 4 pieces. In order of market share, these pieces were:

  • 37% – A smaller American Tobacco, with about 50+ brands under it
  • 28% – Liggett & Myers
  • 20% – R.J. Reynolds
  • 15% – Lorillard

By now, American Tobacco was led by Percival Hill and later his son, George Washington Hill. And after this trust ended, the now-smaller American Tobacco was not prepared for what happened next.

Camels Are Coming

In 1913, two years after this Supreme Court decision, R.J. Reynolds created Camel cigarettes. You can learn more about it in the story of how Camel sold 425 million cigarettes in a year.

The short version is that Camel was a major hit. And it knocked the rest of the tobacco industry on its butt.

In response, American Tobacco introduced Lucky Strike in 1916. Lucky Strike launched with the “It’s toasted!” campaign, which later became its slogan. While the 1916 “It’s toasted!” campaign did well, the results aren’t worth writing about in this series.

(Only the best in 150 years of advertising, remember?)

Camel still led the tobacco industry. And Camel did even better because of a very unlikely reason.

World War I

With America joining WWI in 1917, cigarette companies joined with them. Cigarette companies advertised to soldiers. They even gave free cigarettes to soldiers. 

Cigarettes became currency to soldiers in the field. And Americans wanted the troops to get whatever they wanted… including cigarettes. The U.S. government soon obliged and decided to buy cigarettes for the troops. They even started including cigarettes in field rations.

The government used the market share numbers before the war to decide which cigarettes they were buying. Being one of the leading brands, Camel got a lot of money from this.

When all the soldiers returned home, they came back with a smoking habit. Being heroes of the country, this habit started spreading, creating a generation of smokers. And most of those smokers used Camel cigarettes.

By 1923, Camel rose to the top with a 45% market share. Then a new company, Philip Morris & Co., came on the scene with Marlboro.

And American Tobacco just sat there. Over 50 brands and nobody cared.

Lord & Thomas (L&T)

If this name sounds familiar, it’s because this agency was home to famous copywriter, Claude Hopkins. And it’s the agency responsible for the story of how Sunkist sold 7 billion glasses of orange juice in a year.

American Tobacco had over 50 brands. One of those brands was Blue Boar. Blue Boar was doing better than most American Tobacco brands. And the head of American Tobacco, Percival Hill, was interested in the agency that was working on it.

Percival sent his son, George Washington Hill, to visit L&T in Chicago. George was impressed and L&T won the Lucky Strike account in 1923.

One problem though.

Percival wanted his son George to deal with L&T.

And George was an absolute nightmare to deal with. This is important to mention for two reasons:

  1. George always wanted the head of L&T involved in everything about American Tobacco. The head of L&T was the legendary Albert Lasker.
  2. George was never satisfied with the results of any campaign. He always wanted more.

L&T started working on Lucky Strike cigarettes in 1924. Over the years, they came up with 3 major campaigns.

“It’s toasted!” Campaign (1924)

L&T opened with what you would call a “classic Hopkins” move.

Legendary copywriter, Claude Hopkins, was famous for one thing. He would do a lot of deep research about a product. He’d pick one interesting feature about it. And then he’d create campaigns around it.

Thing is, the feature he advertised wasn’t unique. It is usually something that everybody in the industry did. For example, take Hopkins’ campaign for Schlitz beer. Hopkins built a campaign around how Schlitz cleaned their beer bottles. Saying that Schlitz beer was “pure” because of this cleaning process.

Thing is, every beer company cleaned their beer bottles in exactly the same way.

But customers didn’t know that.

Claude Hopkins would be the first to advertise it as if it were something unique to Schlitz beer. And by being the first person to say it, customers believed it was unique to Schlitz beer. Based on the same idea, L&T tried doing the same with Lucky Strike.

The campaign was all about how toasted tobacco had better flavor and less throat irritation. Truth was, all tobacco is toasted. L&T just advertised about it, stressing the unique benefits of toasting.

This campaign worked well. But still, not enough to get featured in this series.

(To repeat, only the best in 150 years of advertising, remember?)

It seems like George had the same feelings I did. Remember what I said about George from American Tobacco? About how he was never satisfied? He demanded a new campaign.

L&T decided to build on the “It’s toasted!” campaign benefit of less throat irritation. They decided to say Lucky Strike cigarettes protected your voice.

“Precious Voice” Campaign (1927)

For this campaign, L&T tried something different.

First, L&T decided to use celebrity testimonials. Or maybe you could call it influencer marketing.

Second, and this is a big deal, a big part of the campaign targeted women.

That’s a really big deal. Let me explain.

We’ve already seen a few ad campaigns aimed at women. There’s the story of why we wear deodorant, the story of how Miss Clairol created a million blondes, and the story of how the greatest copywriter you’ve never heard of sold 2 million books in 2 years.

It’s nothing new.

But the idea of advertising cigarettes to women? That was… complicated.

There was a lot of controversy around the idea of women smoking. Advertisers had to use indirect methods to get any success. L&T had the idea to use foreign female opera singers in ads. They sent the message that foreign, sophisticated singers were willing to trust their voice to Luckies (because Luckies are toasted) and, without saying it, women should smoke too.

Lucky Strike got some success with their indirect approach. But there is one campaign that did better. This campaign was Chesterfield’s “Blow Some My Way” which was much more subtle. It never showed or suggested any women actually smoking like other campaigns.

It showed women liking the smell of cigarette smoke. And that women would ask their smoking partners to blow some of that Chesterfield cigarette smoke at them.

I believe it’s success came from giving women a social excuse to buy Chesterfields.

“So why are we talking about Lucky Strike instead of Chesterfields?”

Because their next campaign is everything this series is all about.

“???” Campaign (19XX)

Like most good ideas, everybody is trying to take credit for it. It happened in the story of the bridesmaid with breath so bad she tripled Listerine sales. It happened here again.

There are two versions of who came up with this Big Idea. But nearly every other source online would have you believe just one side of the story.

Here are both sides of the story.

The George Washington Hill Side

George had a limousine and a chauffeur. One day, he was being driven down Fifth Avenue in New York. He was just staring out of the window, looking at the city.

On the sidewalk, he saw an overweight woman eating chocolate. Other accounts say she was chewing gum.

George looked at a car next to him. And he saw a thin woman smoking a cigarette.

He had a flash of an idea and rushed to the New York office of L&T.

The Albert Lasker (L&T) Side

Albert was on a train going through Pittsburgh. He noticed a newspaper article about candy makers. They were going to spend $150,000 ($2.2MM today) to advertise against cigarettes.



The less money people spent on cigarettes, the more they could spend on candy. The article explained that the candy campaign would say smoking is bad for the nervous system. And that sweets would help manage cravings for smoking.

Reading this, Albert remembered something he heard from his wife’s doctor. The doctor told his wife that smoking would kill her appetite, including her taste for sweets.

The next time Albert was in New York, he met up with George. Albert wanted to share his idea, but George wanted to share his first. George pulled out a piece of paper with the words, “Reach for a Lucky instead of a bon-bon.”

Albert was surprised they both came up with the same idea independently. He just had one little suggestion.

“Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet” Campaign (1928 – 1929)

Before the end of 1928, L&T rolled out this campaign on top of the “Precious Voice” campaign. The idea was that female singers would say they used Luckies to protect their voices and keep a slim figure.

The result was instant.

In 1928, Lucky Strike sales went up by 8.3 billion cigarettes.

In 1929, Lucky Strike sales went up again by another 10 billion cigarettes.

In other words, they sold more cigarettes in a year than there are humans on earth today.

With this campaign, Lucky Strike finally took the top spot from Camel as the best-selling cigarette in America. Here’s what the most famous of these ads looked like:

1928 Reach For A Lucky Instead Of A Sweet Lucky Strike Cigarette Ad Lord & Thomas Albert Lasker UnfairCopy

And here we have one of the most famous written-copy ads of the campaign.

A Full Ad

1929 Reach For A Lucky Instead Of A Sweet Lucky Strike Cigarette Ad Lord & Thomas Albert Lasker UnfairCopy

Reach For A Lucky Instead Of A Sweet

Before we break down this ad, it’s important to break down why this “Big Idea” worked so well.

First, it is a call-to-action. It tells someone what to do. And it is elegant because it doesn’t need to explain why. You intuitively understand why. So there’s no reason to use headlines that will create curiosity to learn why because you immediately get it.

Even back then, everyone believed that sweets could make you fat. But few people knew how unhealthy smoking could be. So, if you felt like having a sweet, you could have a “healthier” Lucky Strike cigarette instead.

Second, it ties an action to a habit or craving people already have.

If you’ve read about habits, you know that one of the easiest ways to make something a habit is to replace something you regularly do.

Our brains LOVE sugar. And many people have a very strong sweet tooth. When you hijack that regular habit/craving, you have a repeat customer. And then nicotine addiction takes care of the rest.

Third, and perhaps most important, it targets insecurity.

Billions of dollars are made from insecurities, especially insecurities in women. The implication that smoking Luckies will make or keep women thin is by far the most powerful reason this worked so well.

In short, this idea is brilliant on so many different levels. And it’s really no surprise why it did so well.

Onto the ad…

The Layout

Here we have a rather unique layout.

We have photos of 3 famous women. Their faces literally framed in stars to show they are famous. They did not want to be subtle about these women being famous. And just in case you don’t know their faces, there are captions with their names which you might know from newspapers or the radio.

We also have a product photo. The Lucky Strike box which are clearly labeled as cigarettes and have a few cigarettes poking out of it.

According to the three guidelines for product images:

  • Show the product
  • Show the product in use
  • Show the benefit of the product

This picture of the Lucky Strike cigarettes is option number 1.

The ad has an extra callout for the campaign slogan at the bottom right, where you would expect buying instructions or an address. But cigarettes were available everywhere. So it makes sense to use that space for branding.

And the ad also has a footer. It has the classic Lucky Strike slogan with the key benefit as a tagline for brand recognition.

“We know our Luckies. That’s how we stay slender

We all want to be (more) attractive. Celebrities are usually very attractive people. So, many of us aspire to be like them.

Here, we have a headline in quotes to imply someone is saying this. And the pictures in the ad of famous, attractive women of the day means they are the ones saying it.

And what are they saying? They’re saying the major benefit of Luckies is staying slender. And they talk about it like they’ve used Luckies a lot because they “know our Luckies.”

You could call this a testimonial headline.

Also, note how from headline to CTA, the brand name is underlined. This is done on purpose to really burn the brand in your mind. And to imply that this is a benefit from Lucky Strike cigarettes only.

Opening Paragraph

EVERY woman who fears overweight finds keen interest in new-day and common-sense ways to keep a slender, fashionable figure. Overweight must be avoided. “Better to light a Lucky whenever you crave fattening sweets.”

Notice how it starts by telling the reader what to think/do. If you’re a woman worried about being overweight, you’ll have an interest in [put main benefit here]. Then, the ad emphasises that being overweight must be avoided and uses a quote to give you a way to achieve it.

In short, it tells the target audience what to think and what to do to stay slim. And does it by implying it’s a celebrity saying that.

The Mechanism / Why Lucky Strike

Toasting does it. Toasting develops and improves the flavor of the world’s finest tobaccos, Lucky Strike satisfies the longing for things that make you fat, without interfering with a normal appetite for healthful foods. That’s why Luckies are good to smoke. Toasting makes Lucky Strike the healthy cigarette to smoke.

Remember that, by this point, Lucky Strike have been talking about “It’s toasted” since its launch 13 years ago. And L&T had spent about 5 years making noise about why this is a big deal. About why Lucky Strike was different because they were toasted (even if all tobaccos are).

So, the answer to “How does Lucky Strike help me stay slim?” has to be toasting.

This paragraph also expands the Big Idea.

There is a line that expands the benefit from sweets to “things that make you fat”. And how it does so in a safe way, by only attacking cravings for unhealthy foods. You’ll still want to eat healthy foods no problem.

Social Proof

Many men who carefully watch their health discovered this years ago. They know that Luckies steady their nerves and do not slow up their physical vigor—prominent athletes have gone on record that this is so. They know that 20,679 physicians have stated that Luckies are less irritating to the throat than other cigarettes.

Remember how I said advertising cigarettes to women was… complicated?

Academic and historical records are very inconsistent about this.

Some sources say that women smoking was no big deal as early as the 1890s.

Other sources say it was a HUGE deal until the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote in 1920. And women started smoking as a form of rebellion against limiting gender roles, which kept on being a big deal until the 1930s.

My best guess is that this depends on which part of the country the woman was smoking in. And/or what her social class was. Hence the conflicting records.

Anyway, this ad uses men as social proof because, whatever the truth, men were smoking longer and far more than women. It was no big deal, or even cool, for a man to smoke in public. And it is likely that women envied that and wanted the same freedom for themselves.

It uses men and famous athletes as an example of how cigarettes are healthy.

The last sentences uses 3 techniques to support the health claim:

  • Being specific about how many are saying it,
  • Borrowing authority from physicians, and
  • Social proof from such a big number.


A reasonable proportion of sugar in the diet is recommended, but the authorities are overwhelming that too many fattening sweets are harmful and that too many such are eaten by the American people. So, for moderation’s sake we say:—



Not too sure what to call this section. It starts with a disclaimer saying that some amount of sugar is recommended… but then borrows literal “authorities” to say too much is bad and people eat too much sweets.

It reads like a lead-in to finish with the famous line.

Fallout from the Campaign (1929)

This campaign started near the end of 1928. In early 1929, there was a huge backlash.

Not from the general public. No.

Remember how candy makers planned a kind of smear campaign against cigarettes to encourage people to buy sweets instead? Their budget was $150,000 ($2.2MM today).

In 1929, American Tobacco spent an insane $12MM ($182MM today) on this campaign. Just that year alone.

Candy makers had zero chance. And they. went. CRAZY.

There was a candy making company in Brooklyn, Wallace & Co., that formed a national committee just to protest this campaign. The committee was called the “National Food Products Protective Committee.”

They weren’t the only ones who lost their minds over this.

Newspapers, especially in conservative parts of America, condemned American Tobacco. They said these ads were exploiting women.

American Tobacco’s competitors piled it on. Camel owner R.J. Reynolds, now bumped down to the number two cigarette in America, started a campaign. This campaign said, “With a cigaret as good as Camels, the truth is enough”. It was indirectly saying that Lucky Strike was lying to sell cigarettes.

Then the government stepped in too. The Federal Trade Commission started investigating American Tobacco for unfair business practices. They ordered American Tobacco to stop using the word “sweets” in their ads.

All of this within a few months of 1929.

So, you know what American Tobacco did about the FTC demand? They said, “Reach for a Lucky instead.” But by then, everyone knew what they meant.

And sales just kept on climbing.

Key Takeaways

In your business…

  • Focus on one thing, then expand. American Tobacco had no chance against Marlboro and Camel when they were promoting 50 brands. Amazon started by selling books. Samsung started as a grocery store. Procter & Gamble started by selling soap and candles. Start with one successful brand/product then build from there.
  • Know the laws in your industry. American Tobacco should have died somewhere between 1881 and 1883. Only by the sheer will and determination of James Duke did the company bounce back. Always be on the lookout for any legislation that could kill your business.
  • It takes a certain kind of personality to build an empire. It is no exaggeration to say that James Duke and George Washington Hill built American Tobacco. Both of them were extremely ambitious, forward-thinking, ruthless and often difficult men.

In your copy…

  • Target insecurity. There is really no easier way to convince your prospect to buy your product than to show him/her how it can solve an insecurity.
  • Replace a habit or craving. For example, you can sell chewing gum to help people stop smoking. Or to help people stop biting their nails.
  • Use influencers, celebrities and famous names when you can. If the product or service you’re writing for has been used and endorsed by someone famous, USE IT! While endorsements from famous people has lost its power over time, it is still a valid and useful tool.
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