July 1926 ad for El Buen Tono's Radio Cigarettes
In the early 1920s, when wireless radio broadcasting first began, the world was griped by the wonder of the new technology. Everywhere, entrepreneurs rushed to associate themselves and their products with this amazing new invention which allowed news and live entertainment to be miraculously transmitted through the air to an ever growing audience of listeners.
Perhaps one of the strangest stories to evolve from this phenomenon involves the El Buen Tono Tobacco Company which was Mexico’s largest cigar and cigarette maker at the time. The firm’s French immigrant president, Ernest Pugibet, was intrigued with technology and seemed almost obsessed with linking his company with the very latest technological breakthroughs. He already owned a blimp and a hot-air balloon which regularly drifted over Mexico City promoting his Buen Tono Cigarettes so it was only natural that he would join the ranks of radio enthusiasts and create a broadcast station for himself. In connection with the launch of the new station at Mexico City’s ‘radio fair’ in 1923, the company introduced a new brand appropriately named “Radio Cigarettes”. A picture taken of El Buen Tono’s stand at the fair shows a very proud Pugibet standing in front of an enormous radio receiver surrounded by numerous banners proclaiming “Smoke Radio”. As can be seen in the photo, the women who tended the booth all wore antennas on their heads and carried baskets of Radio Cigarettes to give out to visitors.
The company’s advertising department followed this introductory push up with a promotion in late 1923 aimed at increasing the number of homes in
Ads from that campaign showed a pack of Radio Cigarettes resting above an iceberg, crowned by a giant blimp and flanked by a man wearing a fur coat smoking a cigarette. The slogan beneath this scene simply urged readers to “Smoke Radio” leaving today’s viewers to wonder what in the world the connection was between a Mexican cigarette and a huge blimp floating over an iceberg strewn landscape. It turns out that the story behind the ads is almost as strange as the images which were depicted.
The story actually began when a hazardous polar expedition was undertaken that year by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Instead of using a ship and an airplane as he had on his earlier trip to the South Pole, the explorer chose to fly an enormous 360 ft. long zeppelin on his ambitious expedition to the North Pole. When Amundsen, against all odds, reached the pole on May 12, 1926, he immediately radioed back to a waiting world the news that the expedition was a success. It was here that the myth which was to become the basis for the curious ‘Radio Cigarettes at the North Pole’ ad campaign began. A story circulated at the time that as the famous explorer tuned his shortwave receiver aboard the airship in order to make the historic announcement, the first signal that he heard was from none other than El Buen Tono’s
However, according to Professor Ruben Gallo of Princeton University who has researched the story in depth, it turns out that the event may actually have been rooted more myth than fact and it is likely that Ernest Pugibet himself was the source. In his eagerness to associate his brands with the famed Scandinavian’s Artic adventures which on the front page of every paper in the world, It seems that Pugibet took more than a few liberties with the truth. Indeed, some of his ads went so far as to state that “The first thing that Amundsen did as he flew over the North Pole was to light up a ‘Radio’ cigarette”. If the ever-cautious Norwegian explorer saw these ads he would most certainly have been incredulous as such an act could have easily blown his helium filled airship to pieces. However, in an era before truth in advertising laws, the colorful ad copy was all within the boundaries of product promotion and with the passage of time, many people including radio historians came to believe the story of Amundsen’s reception of El Buen Tono’s signal on that eventful day.
(Based on an article written by Ruben Gallo for ‘The Cabinet Magazine’, Summer 2006)