“I’ll Trade You Two John Arkinses For An O. H. Rothaker”

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It’s a bad sign when a company decides that to sell its products it needs to bundle them together with miscellaneous, unrelated goods. It suggests that relations have grown strained between product and customer, that either the product is obsolete or the competition is fierce. But in the short run a bribe can work wonders. I know many holders of American Express cards, for example, who agree to use them instead of their much cheaper Visa cards only because American Express tosses frequent flier miles into the bargain. It should be said, however, that the bribe almost always reveals the vague contempt the company feels for the intelligence of its customers. After all, the reason the company offers the added goodie is that it’s cheaper than lowering its prices. And every so often the bribe is deeply, if implicitly, insulting. For example, the purveyors of neon-colored candy-coated cereals clearly believe that the lure of a cheap trinket inside the box is all that is required to entice a child to poison itself.

The chromolithographs of newspaper editors that were inserted into packs of cigarettes fall into the category of insulting bribes. The cards were introduced in the 1880s, when lots of little tobacco firms were battling to decide which would become R. J. Reynolds. Competing companies printed sets of colored cards—of police captains, dancing girls, baseball players, Indian chiefs—and hoped that a certain number of smokers would become addicted to them too. And they were right: Adult American males fell all over themselves to have little pictures of Indian chiefs—perhaps because the habit of collecting little cards is fueled by a compulsion similar to the habit of smoking cigarettes.

So when the now defunct Alien & Ginter of Richmond, Virginia—which also created some of the first baseball cards—came out with its series of fifty American editors, it should have been an early warning sign that smoking was unintelligent. Imagine! A grown man tearing open his pack of cigarettes in search of the enclosed card and, upon finding it, exclaiming rapturously, “Alright! S. J. Flickinger!”

Like a lot of comedy, it’s hard to say why the idea of putting the picture of a newspaper editor into a packet of cigarettes is so funny. Editors and cigarettes used to go together like smoking and lung cancer, so probably it seemed the thing to do at the time. But it has always been the sad lot of editors to remain impatiently anonymous while their writers—whom they regard invariably and sometimes justly as idiots—become famous. In our day the frustration this breeds is responsible for some huge number of panel discussions in which editors are allowed to preen about the role of the media in society. They didn’t have those back then, so that the editorial ego was forced to seek another outlet. Who knows how many S. J. Flickinger cards S. J. Flickinger kept glued to the dashboard of his buggy?