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Philip Morris USA, Inc. Advertising Archive
Created and maintained by Philip Morris USA, Inc.
Reviewed March 25—April 15, 2003.

Advertisements exist to attract attention and craft audiences‘ responses, and their creators often invest considerable resources toward those ends. As a result, perusing ads can provide the most engaging—and distressing—experiences when scanning magazines, watching television, or using the Internet. Because of plaintiffs’ cases and courts‘ judgments against cigarette companies’ promotional policies, several firms have had to make public treasure troves of documents, including advertisements.

The naval officer’s sleeve in this undated, World War II era ad gives the only hint of Marlboro’s 1950s reincarnation as an emblem of masculinity.

As part of its settlement, Philip Morris USA, Inc., has created an online advertising archive readily accessible to the general public. Intended for “informational, educational, and non-commercial use only,” this Web site contains thousands of color images of materials that include print and outdoor ads, plus point- of-sale and direct marketing items, especially from the last half century. Strictly an archive, the site offers no history or analysis of the images or the firm. It is regularly maintained and augmented but lacks any feedback options.

The site’s introductory pages are well organized, providing detailed, if sometimes misleading, instructions through the link to “help information” on the title page. The “contents” link does not provide entry to the archives but a detour instead to a page titled “Please Read before Viewing the Documents.” Although Internet users tend to skip through such pages and their caveats, this one is worth reading for its additional information about the archive, privacy issues, and fair use, which includes making copies for classroom use, scholarship, and research.

Searches begin on the title page, where the top banner contains a box for entering either simple or advanced searches by a variety of fields, including brand name, ad content, or date. Some categories that might interest historians, such as occupation or ethnicity, come up only when included as organizations mentioned or periodical titles. Moreover, using more than one term in what should be a Boolean search yields often inconsistent and illogical results. For instance, “woman OR man” yielded 1,457 items, while “woman AND man” yielded 6,912; in one session, “men” yielded both 6,689 and 444. Searching by ranges of dates yielded nothing whatsoever—a serious drawback. Search results appear in grids with some identifying information, usually including dates and often placement, with links to the images themselves, which in turn have buttons for enlarging and rotating. Users can download the images or print them directly from their browsers; the scans‘ mediocre quality reflects the site’s legal, not aesthetic, goals. Browsing is only possible through the results of a search, but searches can bring up thousands of items for anyone with the time and patience to go through them individually. Thus the site may be more useful in teaching than for systematic research, although teachers with access to a library might serve their students better by sending them to look through magazines, where they can see ads’ contexts and placements.

Besides producing this online archive, the cigarette litigations offer academic researchers a valuable lesson in interpretation. They demonstrated how ads can provide useful, even actionable, information about creators and their intentions and methods. Judges and juries, however, have required additional documentation and testimonies in order to interpret the messages and what impacts they did have or might have had on their audiences. Scholars too must look beyond messages for supporting evidence to analyze their impacts and meanings. This site provides grist but no mill for scholarship.

Pamela Walker Laird
University of Colorado
Denver, Colorado