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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,365

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This is the grave of George Washington Hill.

Born in 1884 in Philadelphia, Hill grew up wealthy. His father was the VP and later president of American Tobacco Company. So he went to all the good schools and then college at Williams. But he didn’t graduate. Why should he? His future was set at American Tobacco either way. So he dropped out and went to work for daddy.

In 1907, ATC bought Pall Mall Cigarettes and Hill got the job to manage that brand. He was really good at this and was rapidly promoted in the company. When ATC bought Lucky Strike and wanted to make it central to its portfolio, it put Hill in charge. In 1917, the slogan “It’s Toasted” was developed for Lucky Strike. I always thought that was kind of a nonsense slogan, but it sure worked. In any case, this was largely Hill’s doing, though of course with many underlings and ad men whose names are largely forgotten.

In 1925, Hill’s father died and he took over as president of ATC. He had a major growth strategy–target women. Before this, it was seen as unseemly for many if they saw women smoking cigarettes. Hill wanted to change this and he went far to do so. Because he was such a modern advertising guy, he hired the best advertisers to develop campaigns to target women and it was tremendously successful. He did so by hiring movie stars as pitchpeople. Hill hired Lord and Thomas, one of the nation’s major advertising firms to run this campaign. Worked to perfection. Pitches such as “Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet” brought the ladies in. Soon Lucky Strike was the nation’s largest cigarette brand with up to 38 percent of the market.

The Great Depression did not seriously hurt the cigarette market since, you know, addiction. So Hill kept raking in the money in the 30s and he was pulling in over $2 million a year. He also directed ATC in these years to sponsor a lot of radio shows with big stars, including Frank Sinatra, Ethel Smith, and Jack Benny. There was some pushback to all this. At least some people were, like, hey wait a minute is all this smoking good? The American Medical Association spoke out against his advertisements. The New York Times criticized it. The Federal Trade Commission investigated. Hill didn’t care. He pointed out that the only thing that mattered was that he made money. By all accounts, he was an absolutely obsessive business leader, the kind who thought about literally nothing else but making money. He did have two dogs and named them “Lucky” and “Strike.” Said ATC’s top adman, Albert Lasker: “The only purpose in life to him was to wake up, to eat and to sleep so that he’d have the strength to sell more Lucky Strikes.” His hobby was to take his big ol’ Cadillac convertible up and down Broadway in New York City, with a couple of bodyguards on board to show he was a big deal, and have the windshield festooned with Lucky Strike signs. A real piece of work.

Hill died in 1946 while in Quebec. He was 61 years old. I confess I was hoping it was lung cancer, but in fact, it was a heart attack.

George Washington Hill is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Sleepy Hollow, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other people involved in American cigarette history, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Rose Cipollone, who filed the groundbreaking lawsuit in 1983 to hold tobacco companies responsible for her cancer, is in Queens. Leo Burnett, who led the ad campaign to make Marlboro the Man’s Cigarette, is in Chicago. Previous posts are archived here and here.

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