Striking Images: Matchbook Advertising

Get this episode from Under the Influence: Striking Images: Matchbook Advertising (Season 1, Episode 24) - EP - Under the Influence

This week, we tell the remarkable story and journey of matchbook advertising. There was a time when the humble matchbook was the top advertising medium in North America. They were handy, colourful, cheap and even a moderate smoker would be exposed to the advertising over 20 times a day. Matchbook advertising pre-dated radio, and was embraced by almost every industry. From big beer and tobacco companies, to the war effort, to Hollywood, to the smallest Mom & Pop businesses, matchbook advertising was effective and affordable for everyone. And believe it or not, as recently as 2001, the State Department used matchbook advertising to hunt down Osama bin Laden.

True story. Read on. This week, we tell the remarkable story and journey of matchbook advertising.

Back in 1998, U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were truck-bombed.

Later that year, a federal court in Manhattan indicted fugitive Saudi millionaire and terrorist leader Osama bin Laden on charges of plotting the attacks.

The U.S. State Department announced a reward of up to $5 million dollars for information that would lead to bin Laden's arrest and conviction.

It was part of the State Department's "Rewards For Justice Program," created in the mid-1980s.

It offered millions of dollars in exchange for information that enabled U.S. law enforcement agents to prevent terrorist attacks, or successfully prosecute terrorists.

The key to putting a bounty on someone is the same key to marketing a product; People have to know the bounty exists in order to generate interest.

So the State Department put the news out to the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Africa and Europe. They marketed the bounty in various mediums including posters, radio and the internet.

But one of the main channels was through matchbooks.

To spread the word, the State Department printed and circulated thousands of matchbooks bearing bin Laden's image, a multi-million dollar reward, instructions for collecting the money, and the promise of identity protection and possible relocation.

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Original bin Laden reward matchbook.

The program started using matchbooks in the early 1990s, and it's reported that it was a matchbook that led to the arrest of World Trade Centre bombing suspect Ramzi Yousef.

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A matchbook that helped find terrorist Ramzi Yousef.

Three years later, bin Laden's suspected involvement in the 9/11 attacks put the matchbooks back into circulation.

The thinking was this: Many of the rural people of the Middle East don't have access to radios or internet. But research showed that a high percentage of people in those regions were smokers.

Matchbooks are an interesting item. Heavy to moderate smokers look at a matchbook 20+ times a day. Up to eight additional people are exposed to a single matchbook. They get borrowed and shared. Every time a matchbook got pulled out of a pocket, the owner was reminded of the bounty.

Matchbooks were an inexpensive, yet effective way for the State Department to get the word out to remote regions, and keep it top of mind.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, the matchbooks weren't effective in bin Laden's case. That could be because the reward amount on the matchbooks was missing a zero - it said $500,000 instead of $5 million. A bit of a difference.

Also the matchbooks were green. A colour Muslims associate with Islam, so many Afghans would interpret it to mean bin Laden was a Holy Man.

And lastly, the website on the matchbooks was also incorrect - so anyone wishing to leave a tip just got an error message.

But, aside from that failure, the mighty matchbook has a long and quite successful history in the world of marketing.

As a matter of fact, there was a time in our history when matchbooks were the most popular advertising medium in North America. They were inexpensive, colourful, persuasive, and highly mobile.

Businesses used matchbook advertising for the same reasons the State Department chose them to hunt down bin Laden.

Except for one difference.

Their proofreading was better.

The story of matchbook advertising dates back to the late 1800s. But these early matches were highly volatile.

Then came a gentleman named Joshua Pusey.

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Joshua Pusey

Pusey was a Philadelphia patent lawyer with a love of cigars. He was also a tinkerer, and was fascinated, in particular, by fire.

He would eventually take out 36 different patents for various inventions, but his claim to fame was the "flexible match." He was granted a patent for his "flexibles" on September 27th, 1892:

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Joshua Pusey's flexible match patent.

Pusey and his son carefully cut strips of cardboard with office shears, affixed them to a paper base and dipped the ends of the strips into sulfur and phosphorous, which they brewed over the pot-bellied stove in their office.

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Joshua Pusey and son in their office.

While the paper match was an amazing invention, his matchbook still had certain "issues."

For starters, Pusey put the match striker board inside the matchbook. So, all the matches would often ignite when one was struck.

Three years later, in 1895, after many interesting light-ups, Joshua Pusey put out the fire in his beard, and sold his invention to the Diamond Match Company of Barberton, Ohio, for $4,000.

Diamond Matches dispenser.jpg Source:

While the Diamond Match Company started manufacturing matchbooks, many historians point to the Mendelson Opera as the first to use matchbooks for advertising purposes.

The Opera didn't have enough money for proper advertising, so the their manager purchased 200 blank matchbooks from the Diamond Company, and cast members would sit up a night pasting photos of their leading lady on the matchcovers.

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The first matchbook advertising was for the Mendelson Opera, and were handwritten.

They also hand-printed slogans on them. The matchbooks promised a "powerful caste, pretty girls, handsome wardrobes and a cyclone of fun."

The Opera Hall sold out. That success wouldn't go unnoticed.

But while matchbooks could slip into a pocket without an unseemly bulge, and while they were affordable and didn't ignite with an explosion of sparks, and even though they offered 20 matches to correspond to packages that contained 20 cigarettes, they still didn't catch on with the public.

Enter Henry C. Traute. He was a highly motivated young salesman in Diamond's matchbook division. Inspired by the success of the Mendelssohn Opera matchbooks, Traute had an idea:

He wanted to bypass the consumer, go directly to manufacturers, and entice them to buy advertising space on his matchbooks.

But before he did that, he made two important improvements.

First, he moved the striker strip to the outside of the matchbooks to prevent accidents. Then he added the famous line, "Close cover before striking."

Feeling ready, Traute began calling on companies to convince them to advertise their wares on the match covers. It was going to take some salesmanship, as the available advertising space was just 1.9 inches on the front, 2 inches on the back, and 0.2 of an inch on the bottom.

He called them "mini billboards."

Traute told potential advertisers that matchbooks were the newest advertising medium, and that the public would look at match-cover ads up to twenty times a day as they light up cigarettes. Not only that, they were the most affordable advertising medium - with a box of 2,500 matchbooks only costing six dollars.

In 1896, Traute reprinted a Pabst Beer magazine ad in matchbook size.

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Pabst liked what they saw and ordered 10 million matchbooks on the spot.

Next, the American Tobacco Company sensed a match made in heaven, and ordered 30 million matchbooks advertising their products.

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Traute didn't stop there. He managed to get a meeting with chewing gum king William Wrigley, and secured an order for one billion matchbooks.

At the current production rate, the Pabst order would be filled in two months, the American Tobacco order in seven months, and the Wrigley order of one billion wouldn't have seen fulfillment for over 18 years.

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The second thing Henry Traute did was to convince a New York tobacconist to give matchbooks away for free, with the promise it would boost the sale of cigarettes and cigars.

In no time, their tobacco sales doubled, and free matchbook giveaways spread across the nation.

Just as Traute predicted, matchbook advertising made an impression on the consumer with every single match strike. A frequency of messaging that not even magazines or newspapers could claim.

By the 1920s, the matchbook was the most popular advertising format in North America.

They were "billboards in the palm of your hand."

Then came that dark day in October of 1929.

As advertising budgets all but disappeared, so did orders for matchbooks. The Great Depression bit hard into the sales of the Diamond Match Company. It needed another Traute-sized idea to survive. Since businesses were no longer buying their product, Diamond turned its gaze to consumers.

They noticed that only thing that distracted people from the gloom of the Depression were Hollywood movies.

So the Diamond Match Company issued a set of matchbooks with movie stars on the covers, including Katherine Hepburn, Fred Astaire and Clarke Gable.

The Diamond Matchbook Company began printing celebrities on match covers.

It was a huge success, and kept the company going during the lean 1930s. The matchbooks sold for a penny, and featured hundreds of Hollywood celebrities from film and radio, complete with biographies on the back covers.

Diamond then sensed a bigger opportunity, and began issuing sets featuring American sports heroes from football, baseball and hockey.

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Then Diamond hit on the idea of issuing sports stars on matchbooks.

It saved the matchbook industry.

Throughout the 30s, the public remained eager and willing to buy cigarettes. They were almost seen as a necessary staple along with food and clothing. Matchbooks sales increased even further as smoking became more popular among women.

It was also during the 30s that one of the best known advertisers started using matchbooks.

The company was Art Instruction Inc. They advertised on match-covers with their famous "Draw Me!" ads.

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The famous "Draw Me" matchbooks that offered correspondence art courses.

When you flipped the matchbook open, the ad continued, saying. "You are in demand if you can draw!"

"If you like to draw, sketch or paint, write for the FREE talent test."

The address was in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

It was a correspondence art course, and its instructors were some of the most famous artists of the era. Later, in the 50s, one of the instructors was Charles M. Schulz, who would go on to create Peanuts.

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Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz.

When Schulz was in high-school in the 30s, his mother saw the Art Instruction ads on a matchbook. Schultz took the art course, which cost a remarkable $170 back then - a huge sum during the Depression.

Schulz had a definite knack as an illustrator, and several years later signed on as an instructor. It was during that time he began sketching characters that would eventually become the Peanuts comic strip, as Charlie Brown and Linus were actually based on co-workers at Art Instruction Inc.

Back when the Second World War broke out, the matchbook industry was about to land its biggest client - the United States Government.

There was suddenly a need for patriotic and military advertising. Matchbooks asked the public to support the war-effort and to buy war bonds.

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Others asked people to boycott German-made goods.

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Even U.S. warships like the U.S.S. Indianapolis had their own matchbooks:

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Overseas soldiers were given matches as part of their K-Rations that proclaimed, "I'm Proud Of You and So Are The Folks At Home."

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By the end of 1945, over 200 billion matchbooks had been printed. There were also over one million Phillumenists - or matchbook collectors.

The term comes from the Latin "phil" for "lover" and "Lumen" for "lite." A phillumenist is "a lover of light." The hobby was second only to stamp collectors.

It was estimated that 99% of smokers at this time lit up with matchbooks, and 45% of those smokers could name the advertisers on the books they were carrying.

American match-making was a bustling industry.

After the war, the match industry continued to grow. Advertisers returned to matchbooks, and matchbook salesmen not only supported their families, but were able to provide them with post-war luxuries. The optimism of the 1950s boosted matchbook advertising to an all-time high.

Then the first article linking cancer to smoking appeared in Reader's Digest Magazine in 1957.

It was bad news for the match industry, as the fortune of matches was coat-tailed to cigarettes. But the matchbook industry soldiered on.

In the 60s, you could still smoke in hospitals, in movie theatres, in grocery stores, in elevators and in airplanes.

Banks gave matchbooks to customers, candidates gave personalized matchbooks to voters, hotels gave matchbooks to guests, people collected matchbooks as souvenirs of their travels, and happy couples gave out personalized matchbooks at their weddings.

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Political matchbooks have always been popular.

But anti-smoking movements and messages started to gain momentum, and it continued to chip away at matchbook sales.

But even as late as the 70s, I still remember seeing matchbook covers that advertised a long list of correspondence courses in the occupation of your choice - from plumbers and pipefitters to doctors, lawyers, audio and x-ray technicians to truck drivers and teachers.

SCTV did a funny skit playing off those famous matchbook ads, with Dave Thomas making the pitch with a giant book of matches:

Source: YouTube
SCTV lampoons matchbook career ads.

Little did the matchbook industry know it was about to meet its biggest foe in 1974.

His name was Marcel Bich. He founded his company in Paris in the mid-40s, and began manufacturing parts for fountain pens and mechanical pencils.

Soon, be began producing ballpoint pens, which he called a BIC - a phonetic spelling of his last name, BICH.

By 1967, BIC was turning out over 500 million pens annually, accounting for over 60% of the U.S. market.

That success led to the launch of the BIC disposable lighter.

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The matchbook meets its arch-enemy: The BIC disposable lighter.

By 1967, BIC was turning out over 500 million pens annually, accounting for over 60% of the U.S. market.

That success led to the launch of the BIC disposable lighter. The company began using the suggestive tagline, "Flick your BIC" - as you'll hear in this 1974 TV commercial:

Source: YouTube
"Flick Your BIC" became a saucy national catch-phrase.

BIC lighters gave smokers 3,000 lights for under one dollar. Not even the one-cent price tag of matches could beat that promise.

It was the beginning of the end for the matchbook industry.

The biggest advertising medium of the 1920s that had survived Depressions and World Wars and radio and television, had finally met its Waterloo.

But - according to the New York Times, the matchbook has been called the best-read book in North America.

And "Close Cover Before Striking" the most printed phrase in the history of the printed word.

Two and a half trillion matchbooks with advertising on their covers have been printed since its humble beginning in Joshua Pusey's office back in 1892.

And its remarkable to think the tiny match cover was once the most popular form of advertising in North America - an admirable feat when you consider the available surface was less than two inches.

While matchbook advertising almost was almost extinguished by the end of the last century, it seems to be enjoying a small comeback.

The D.D. Bean Match Company of New Hampshire turns out over 20 million matchbooks every day. It also claims non-tobacco use of matches has increased 100% since the late 90s.

Maybe our attraction to matches runs deeper than simple convenience. Fire speaks to life. If you've got matches, you've got light and warmth.

And maybe a tiny advertising message tucked in there for good measure...

... when you're under the influence.
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