The image of cigarette-smoking enjoyed its final stages of mass popularity during the early 1960s. Studies that showed a link between smoking and lung cancer started to become a concern among the United States public, and advertisers began to produce copy and TV commercials to educate consumers about the health risk.
One of the first anti-smoking ads aimed at young people was a 65-second animation clip called “Johnny Smoke.” Produced by the Ad Council, a non-profit organization specializing in public service announcements since the 1940s, the Johnny Smoke PSA was part of the American Heart Association’s campaign to alert Americans of the dangers created by smoking tobacco products. The ad ran on television for 10 years, mostly during the hours when children were most likely to watch. Its impact may have been limited, but many older adults still remember it as one of the scenes from their early TV-watching childhood.
The ad consists of just 15 hand-drawn cels, depicting a masked, cowboy hat-wearing cigarette astride a horse, riding through an apocalyptic landscape. Other riders are shown disappearing from their horses, symbolizing the victims of cigarette use. One is drawn dying on the ground, apparently after taking his final puff. It ends with the cigarette horseman, Johnny Smoke, lifting a pack in triumph. The American Heart Association’s logo closes out the ad with its trademark torch in full flaming animation.
“Johnny Smoke” is noteable for its stark, primal visuals, and for the talent of a voice actor named James Earl Jones. In the early ’60s, Jones had amassed theater credits on Broadway, but was yet to make his film debut as the bombadier in 1964’s “Dr. Strangelove.” Later, Jones would gain recognition as the voice of Darth Vader in the Star Wars film franchise. But in “Johnny Smoke,” his vocal interpretation terrified youngsters when he asked, “…how many more will DIE?”
Advertisers didn’t understand it then, but older kids responded to Johnny Smoke the way they do to all “cautionary” public service announcements: they watched it, they ridiculed it, then they ignored it. In fact, according to some comments about the PSA, the ad might have actually driven 1960s teenagers to give smoking a try.