Katelyn Brown Comm 320 “B Kool”: Campaign Analysis and Implications on Modern-day Pop Culture

“Advertisements are selling us something else besides consumer goods: in providing us with a structure in which we, and those goods, are interchangeable, they are selling us ourselves” (Williamson 1978)1.

Judith Williamson, a profound and well-known advertising critic, has put into words the goal of every single advertising campaign created throughout history. In order to sell a product, a consumer must believe that they are purchasing a new way of life, a betterment of themselves. Advertising for cigarettes is no different in the sense that the company offers a way to differentiate oneself from the norm. Brown and Williamson created a brand of cigarettes in 1932 that has, since its inception, allowed its loyal consumers to break away from societal norms: to “B Kool”. A close analysis of this specific advertising campaign reveals much deeper cultural issues regarding race, gender, and sex that I will discuss throughout the course of this paper. Since the creation of the Kool cigarette in the 1930’s, Brown and Williamson have changed their major advertising strategy nearly five times, most of which cannot be discussed here.2 The image of the “Kool penguin”, created in the mid-1930’s, was used for nearly 60 years before an advertising renovation in the 1990’s. In 1998, a new campaign was released, making it the first Kool cigarette campaign to completely eliminate the penguin image from the advertising.

1 2

See “Semiotics and Ideology”: http://www.generation-online.org/c/fcformalism.htm History of Kool ad campaigns: 1932 - Creation of the “Kool” penguin. The image of the penguin in a top-hat, bow-tie, and monocle suggests that this product was targeted toward upper class individuals. 1991 - “New” Kool penguin was based on the image of Joe Camel – masculine and muscular. This was targeted towards the younger generation, mainly 20’s, as a projection of “new cool”. 1998 - “B Kool”. 2000 - “We built the House of Menthol” which played on popular dance music and being the first mentholated cigarette. 2003 - “Sound Track to the Streets”. The company began hosting Kool Mixx DJ competitions in urban areas, specifically targeting youthful African Americans. 1

Replacing the penguin was a phrase that would forever change the image of the cigarette brand: “B Kool”. There are several implications of this specific advertising campaign, especially present in the print ads. One observation relates specifically to race. How is race being presented in these ads? A critical look at the name of the brand, “Kool”, suggests that the origin of the word is no random choice. The creation of the word “cool” around the 1930’s was considered the first example of a type of slang construction in modern “Black American English”. So does this brand specifically target Black Americans? After taking a look at the history of the Kool cigarette campaigns3, I can say that such is absolutely the case. This particular brand of cigarettes isolates a specific race and creates a subculture based on appearance and stereotypical aspects of “race”. The specific print ads in the B Kool campaign point to a distinct targeting of African Americans. If we look at the male’s arm and hands in these ads (refer to the last page), we can see that it is usually an African American arm. Some of the ads are ambiguous as to the color of the skin, but most of the ads in the campaign are noticeably African American. These ads reemphasize that a specific, individualistic African American culture exists within the Kool cigarettes, something all their own. The chain around the wrist in several of the ads is significant as well. One could say that the chain signifies a hip-hop culture associated with modern rappers and disc jockeys. When this campaign was created, many popular rappers were African Americans singing about their past hardships and a variety of political issues, such as growing up in a bad neighborhood or being abused as a child. This association is an individualistic characteristic of a particular culture, but has since become commodified. Who is being enslaved in these ads? I have generated a possible option. The first is that the woman is

The campaign in 2000 (refer to footnote 1) was based around Kool cigarettes being “mentholated”. “…mentholated cigarettes account for between 60 and 75 percent of the cigarettes smoked by African Americans- and 90% of African Americans youth who smoke, smoke menthols”. For more information, please refer to “ ‘Come up to the Kool Taste’: African American Upward Mobility and the Semiotics of Smoking Menthols” by Sarah S. Lochlann Jain. Also, the campaign in 2003 was geared toward DJ competitions, mainly consisting of African American participants. 2

being enslaved to the man’s “koolness”. He has her under his control simply because he is carrying a material object that holds some sort of status in his subculture, and the women are drawn to this image.4 These racial implications in the B Kool campaign are both obvious and subtle depending on how deep one can dig into the actual setup of the prints. There are several other aspects of gender stereotyping in the print ads, and they prove to support my original analysis. The first term that comes to mind when thinking about the female image is “materialistic”. In the ads shown, these women are presumably interested in the protagonist because he is holding something of material value, something that shows his status. For all we as viewers know, this man could be the epitome of perceived masculinity. Why don’t we see his face? These ads are saying that regardless of everything else, the women are drawn to his material possessions because, stereotypically, Americans view women as materialistically driven (i.e. “gold digger”)5. Another immediate stereotype that came to mind when viewing these ads is possession of the female. The U.S. man is stereotypically the breadwinner, the head of the household, and the provider, while women are in turn considered helpless, allowing men to control their lives. In these particular ads from the “B Kool” campaign, I would argue that the man is in possession of the onlooking women by simply observing his body language and possessions. The obvious argument would be that the protagonist is holding a material object that these women are all interested in obtaining, or the women want what is associated with that material object. In this sense, the man dominates the women because he is in control of what they desire. This desire is a sense of


Another opinion is that the man is the one enslaved to the cigarettes. Interestingly enough, this can be taken literally or symbolically. Literally, cigarettes are addicting and can hold a person captive to this addiction. Symbolically, the man is addicted to the status and the attention that the cigarettes bring him. 5 A “gold-digger” is usually a younger woman who marries an older man with significant wealth. The relationship is based solely n the material possessions, not on intimacy or love as one would commonly expect a marriage to be in modern-day American culture. The history actually goes back to Classical Greece when men of stature would typically marry around the age of 30 and take wives who were in their mid-teens. This age disparity was much more common than same-age relationships. 3

“coolness”, or status. Also notice the way in which the man’s hand is positioned around the cigarettes. He is grasping them tightly, as if they might be ripped from his fingers at any minute. In Figure 4, the color of the woman’s dress is the same color as the cigarette box. A good advertisement, one would think, would try to make the product stand out from the background, but this particular ad is not trying to only sell the material object. This ad is selling an association between their product and the ownership of a beautiful woman. When a man possesses these particular cigarettes, he also has the ability to possess the woman, and all the associations of power and masculinity that come with the product. The “B Kool” print ads not only reiterate female gender roles in modern-day society, but they also destabilize them. Jacques Lacan used the term “le regard”, or the gaze, to describe the relationship between the subject looking at an object and the specific object being looked at by the subject (Cartwright & Sturken 82-93). Historically, the man has always been the “gazer”, and the woman has always been the object of his gaze; however, in the “B Kool” ads, there seems to be somewhat of a role reversal. The women in these ads seem to be objectifying the man. They notice him because he carries around a symbol of “coolness”, not because of his physical appearance or personality. The man in these ads is a prop, a medium for these women to improve their status. On the other hand, however, “a potentially objectifying gaze can be deflected in an image, if the subject refuses to acknowledge it” (Cartwright 88)6. Both perspectives emphasize gender being reiterated, as well as destabilized, in these ads created by this particular campaign. A third and final implication that I will discuss is the issue of sexuality in the “B Kool” print ads. A dominant reading of these advertisements shows that the product is trying to tell the viewer

This phrase is used in Practices of Looking to describe a similar situation to the “B Kool” ads: the Diet Coke commercial in which women on their break from work gaze longingly at an alpha-male drinking a Diet Coke with his shirt removed. He doesn’t acknowledge their gaze, and “part of the tradition of imaging men as objects of desire has involved particular codes of resisting power of the gaze upon them”(88). This is similar to the “B Kool” ads in the sense that the male is resisting the power of the female because he already has status, given to him by his beloved cigarettes. 4

that if they smoke these cigarettes, they are going to become more attractive and/or popular to the opposite sex; people who smoke these cigarettes are going to get noticed7. Obviously the ads try to appeal to human sexuality by picturing attractive women eyeing a man seductively, but the cigarettes are also trying to sell status through real or imagined sexuality. Refer back to Figure 4, in which the woman’s dress is the same color as the cigarette box. This connection links them together as objects of desire. This is not a coincidence; it is a strategy. By linking two desirable objects, a viewer can infer that the pleasure experienced by one is the same as the expected pleasure of the other. In this case, the pleasure of smoking the Kool cigarettes is comparable to the pleasurable “company” of the woman in the vehicle. In another ad, Figure 1, two women subtly observe the man in a stereotypically characteristic image of men’s sexual fantasy. This is a sort of subliminal sexuality, which appears often in the “B Kool” ads.8 Has sexuality been taken too far in these advertisements? I will admit that such overtly sexual advertisements definitely gain attention; however, this can be both positive and negative attention through the eyes of the consumer. A positive reaction is elicited through the association of beauty and success. The viewer can relate to the images because this association is assumed to be the typical norm in modern-day society: more physical beauty equals more success. A negative reaction is also evoked based on these same presumptions of norms in modern-day culture. Mere physical beauty is not an essential factor in the determinination of success, but this is often mistook as factual and crucial. This misunderstanding can lead to subsequent activities aimed at obtaining that physical beauty. These advertisements are not simply selling a product, but are also selling a differentiation from the norm, in particular higher status. Through close analyses of race, gender, and sexuality, I

In the Victorian era, cigars were used as a signifier for sexuality in advertising, as well as to represent upper class status. 8 Another instance appears in Figure 4, in which there has been enormous debate over how the man is holding the gasoline pump in the background. Was this intended? Some critics say ‘yes’ because sex grabs and keeps viewers’ attention. Others say that it was simply a product of several pictures being taken, and this particular picture was chosen because of the inadvertent background scene in which the camera just happened to catch the man in that position. 5

have managed to pick apart several deep issues with advertising strategies such as the “B Kool” campaign. These issues should not simply be thought about only in the context presented, but must be more closely and specifically viewed through a critical lens in order to understand that ideology is often hidden in the simplest of objects.


Works Cited

Cartwright, Lisa and Marita Sturken. Practices of Looking. Oxford University Press, Inc. New York, 2001. Jain, Sarah S. Lochlann. “ ‘Come Up to the Kool Taste’: African American Upward Mobility and the Semiotics of Smoking Menthols”. Public Culture 15(2). Duke University Press. Durham, North Carolina, 2003. Lê Cook, Benjamin, Geoffrey Ferris Wayne, Lois Keithly, Gregory Connolly. “One size does not fit all: how the tobacco industry has altered cigarette design to target consumer groups with specific psychological and psychosocial needs”. Society for the Study of Addiction to Alcohol and Other Drugs. Boston, MA, 2003. “Roundtable on Approaches to the Analysis of Advertisements” (E-ISSN 1154-7311). Advertising and Society Review. Advertising Educational Foundation. Project Muse. Danvers, MA. Vernellia, Randall R. “Targetting of African Americans”. The University of Dayton School of Law. Dayton, OH, 2004. Williamson, Judith. http://www.generation-online.org/c/fcformalism.htm.