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SHE SAID, HE SAID / ANN CONWAY and PATRICK MOTT

A Trick Is an Image Created With Smoke and Mirrors

March 04, 1994|ANN CONWAY and PATRICK MOTT

"A kiss is the only part of a romance that I go into with my eyes closed," reads the pink print on a T-shirt we noted in a fashion magazine catalogue. Nice message. Nice shirt. The price? Free with proof of purchase. Mail to: Promotional Services Center, Virginia Slims V-Wear. That's right, Virginia Slims cigarettes. We're infuriated about this more than subliminal ad campaign to hawk cigarettes in the name of fashion.

SHE: There I am, flipping through Vogue magazine, and I come upon a mini-catalogue of upbeat fashion items--frilly shirt, Edwardian trinket, brocade vest, granny glasses. Cute stuff. Neat layout. Then I spot them--those slender white reeds we once called coffin nails, dangling from the models' hands. This is no catalogue; this is an ad campaign aimed at pushing tobacco at young women.

I take a second look at the fresh T-shirt with the pink print. And I wonder about that kiss: Will it taste like the bottom of a bird cage?

HE: The Virginia Slims people have been as subtle as a train wreck in a lot of their promotions in the past few years, not the least of which is their sponsorship of high-ticket tennis tournaments. Sure. I can just see Martina Navratilova Hoovering down a couple big lungs full of Virginia Slims smoke between tie-breakers.

But this is nothing new in the fashion biz. Cigarettes have been used for years to enhance what purports to be the urbane, sophisticated or rebellious image that certain clothes have. Look at all that Joe Camel junk. Joe Camel in a leather fighter jock jacket and white scarf. Joe Camel in a "Miami Vice"-style T-shirt suit. Joe Camel in a white dinner jacket and black tie.

Yes, a cigarette casually dangling from the fingers was the height of cool when Bogart did it. But that was back when Ronald Reagan was shilling for Chesterfields. Now that we know that tobacco smoke has the same effect on lung tissue that formaldehyde has on eggs Benedict, it doesn't have the same panache somehow.

SHE: I remember being incensed when Virginia Slims launched its "You've Come a Long Way, Baby" campaign. Yeah, you've come so far, you can get lung cancer just like the men can, I told myself. The name says it all. Virginia Slims. An ad campaign aimed at girls who want to be sophisticated and lean.

The double-page spread that launches the catalogue depicts an apple-cheeked young woman, cigarette in hand, perched on a trunk. She's going places! Like the cemetery.

Did you know that a Health and Human Services survey found that the rate of daily smoking (which has been steady for nearly a decade among high school seniors) rose in eighth- to 12th-graders last year, with the rate going to 8% among eighth graders? Fifty thousand kids were polled.

One thing to be grateful for--to participate in the Virginia Slims' butts-for-clothes campaign, you have to be 21 or older. But younger girls are still going to get the message.

HE: That's the problem with using a cigarette as a fashion accessory. Face it: Nobody likes to smoke the first time they try a cigarette. It makes them gag. Their eyes water. It smells like hell. But, by golly, it looks so cool! Or so they think. Did you ever see anything so dopey-looking as a 14-year-old kid trying to look sophisticated with a cigarette?

And on the adult front: Did you ever see a spectacular-looking woman--perfectly, elegantly dressed, a stunner in every way, shatter the effect to atoms by whipping out a cigarette (particularly if it's one of those frilly brands such as Virginia Slims), firing it up and shrouding the entire room in a big, throaty exhalation of smoke?

SHE: Yep. I'll never forget the sight of New York designer Carolina Herrera--one of Jackie Onassis' favorite designers--living it up at a fashion gala in Newport Beach a while back.

She worked the room in a chocolate lace cocktail dress with cigarette to match. I couldn't believe it! She was there to promote her line, yet she deglamorized her image the second she lit up.

In my book, the surgeon general's warning should be as big as the headline promoting the fashions in the Virginia Slims catalogue. As it stands, it occupies a small block at the bottom of a page.

HE: I'm constantly amazed that we even need the warning label anymore, but apparently we do. The FDA is considering classifying nicotine as a drug. How long does it take to sink in? (And no, I don't believe I'm a hypocrite because I smoke the occasional good cigar. Cigar smokers don't inhale, and one cigar a week will probably shorten my life by, oh, 15 minutes. I'll risk it.)

Maybe they ought to drop the stuff about fetal death and lung cancer and all that from the warning label and go with something like "WARNING: Smoking cigarettes dramatically reduces the glamour value of your clothes and forces you to take them to the cleaners more often, which can damage the fabric."

Millions would quit tomorrow.

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