Ruggedness and nicotine:?The outdoors in cigarette ads/Out There

The weather was lousy this past Saturday, so rather than looking for the outdoors in the actual outdoors, I went looking for it in the pages of Popular Mechanics magazines from the late 1970s.

The pages of these magazines are full of subtle suggestions about how best to get out into nature: a Jeep “Honcho” four-wheel-drive pickup truck with roll bar and sunset-style graphics, a “boonie van” that can be built with a VW microbus chassis and mail-order plans from the publishers, a 175-horsepower Mercury “Black Max” outboard motor, an Arctic Cat Trail Cat with long travel slide rail suspension system.

While there may be something to be said about the kind of experience boaters and snowmobilers have in the outdoors, the vintage Popular Mechanics magazines featured one group of people who seemed to know more about getting in touch with nature than anyone else: smokers. From the cowboys saddling up horses outside a snow-covered barn, ready to head out to where the flavor is (or where it was in January of 1977), to the proud angler tasting the good times with Raleigh while reeling home a good-sized bass, smokers in the 1970s were on the inside track to authentic outdoor experience.

But to really get to the heart of rugged, nicotine-fueled outdoorsmanship, I looked to Camel’s “Where a Man Belongs” campaign. While Winston smokers were wearing their zodiac signs on golden chains, and the taste of country fresh Salem was being enjoyed by a wavy-haired dude whose sweater and jacket matched perfectly his impeccable tan trousers (he was standing near a clear, cool lake with mountains in the background: ads for menthol cigarettes always involve water), the guy in the Camel ads was lighting his smokes with burning campfire embers and carving canoe outriggers with a primitive axe.

My first encounter with this rugged outdoorsman was outside a package liquor store on the west side of Grand Rapids, Mich. On the side of the building there was a metal advertising poster featuring the adventurer with curly blonde hair and weather-worn features paddling a canoe through a deep and dark jungle swamp. Or maybe he was straight-up fording the river, without the canoe, but at any rate he was right in the thick of it.

In another variation, the adventurer is carrying a tire in his right hand while taking a satisfying puff on his Camel with his left. A rusted, rugged Jeep is in soft focus in the background, the front bumper propped up on a jack. The adventurer has a calm, satisfied look on his face, so he must be enjoying the hell out of his cigarette because it’s clear he’s so far off the beaten path it will be long past sundown before he gets anyplace where he can fix his tire. And this is what separates the “Where a Man Belongs” ads from the other outdoor-themed cigarette pitches: whereas most other cigarette spokesmen look obviously superimposed on their natural backgrounds, the Camel man looks convincingly like he’s up to his armpits in swamp water.

Looking at the “Where a Man Belongs” ads next to those of Salem and Raleigh, it’s clear that the Camel man is having a more authentic outdoor experience. The thing is, these Camel ads don’t make me want to smoke a cigarette. They just make me want to paddle a canoe. In a jungle, if possible.