Behind this Battle of the Sexes, a Philip Morris brand

Tennis racket and ball

Battle of the Sexes (Fox, PG-13) spotlights a struggle for gender equality on the pro tennis circuit and a much-hyped 1973 tennis match between women's champion Billie Jean King and hustler Bobbie Riggs. The film also touches on tobacco giant Philip Morris' sponsorship of King and other players who broke away to form their own women's professional tour. 

Four decades after Philip Morris bankrolled the Virginia Slims Tour, Battle of the Sexes displays or mentions the Virginia Slims brand thirteen times, among its eighty tobacco incidents. Virginia Slims are still sold in the US and around the world.

Two of the film's three smokers are based on actual women who smoked: tour promoter Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) and tennis player Jane "Peaches" Bartkowicz (Martha MacIsaac). The third is an un-named extra.

In its first six weeks, Battle of the Sexes delivered more than 100 million tobacco impressions to movie audiences, many unaware of the film's tobacco backstory:

Philip Morris pushes tobacco at women

• The last cigarette commercial on television in the United States appeared just before midnight on 1 January 1971. It was for Virginia Slims. To regain exposure, Virginia Slims sponsored women's championship tennis from 1973 to 1976, and renewed its exploitation from the 1980s into the 1990s.

• Philip Morris (now Altria) deliberately designed the Virginia Slims brand to target women, adjusting its strategy as young women's self-perceptions shifted over the years. Ad slogans include "You've come a long way, baby," "It's a woman thing," and "Find your voice."

• From 1970 to 1990, US women's death rates from lung cancer nearly tripled. They now exceed deaths from breast cancer. In 2017, more than 220,000 Americans will receive a lung cancer diagnosis. Nearly half of lung cancer deaths in 2017 (46%) will be among women.

Philip Morris and Fox, together again

Battle of the Sexes is financed and distributed by 21st Century Fox. Philip Morris (now Altria) and Fox (formerly News Corp.) have many corporate connections:

• Fox's CEO, Rupert Murdoch, served on Philip Morris' board of directors for a decade, from 1989 to 1998.

• Top Philip Morris executives served on Fox's board for two decades: Hamish Maxwell (1992-1998), Geoffrey C. Bible (1999-2004), and Peter Barnes (2004-2012).

• Billie Jean King served on Philip Morris's board for five years (1999-2003), assigned to the board's committee for "Public Affairs and Social Responsibility." 

All independent corporate board members are paid. SEC filings indicate that King was paid $200,000 and held 24,000 shares of Philip Morris stock, worth more than $300,000, when she left the Altria board in 2004.

Philip Morris wanted its moneys worth

Philip Morris/Altria traded board members with Fox because it aimed to influence public policy. King and Philip Morris' CEO Bible joined Fox just as Philip Morris launched a $100 million campaign to portray itself as socially responsible, even changing its name to the altruistic-sounding Altria in 2002.

But Philip Morris' image makeover had begun by 1985, when Philip Morris CEO Hamish Maxwell (not yet a News Corp. board member) recommended learning from both the gay rights movement and the National Rifle Association how to champion a "seemingly impossible cause," including exploiting "natural allies":

A number of media proprietors that I have spoken to are sympathetic with our position — Rupert Murdoch and Malcolm Forbes are two good examples. The media like the money they make from our advertisements and they are an ally that we can and should exploit.

A staff appendix to Maxwell's memo held up Murdoch's News Limited (later News Corp.) as a model of cooperation:

As regards to the media, we plan to build on similar relationships to those we now have with Murdoch's News Limited with other newspaper proprietors. Murdoch's papers rarely publish antismoking articles these days.

Conclusion

Battle of the Sexes is a good movie. So is 2013's Rush (Comcast, R), set in 1970s Formula One racing. Rush flashed Altria's Marlboro brand 190 times in 123 minutes, delivering nearly 300 million tobacco impressions.

From both films, Philip Morris gets a 21st Century dividend for the money it spent on sports sponsorships forty years ago. Sports sponsorships are now outlawed in the US because they take an end-run around tobacco ad restrictions and associate physical vitality with the #1 cause of preventable death.

Given the intricate relationship between Big Media and Big Tobacco, including the long history of payoffs in Hollywood itself, it's legitimate to ask if these particular "niche" movies would have been green-lighted if they had not been platforms for tobacco brands. Perhaps we'll never know.

Still, that points to another lesson of Battle of the Sexes. Altria is a $123 billion company. Philip Morris International, spun off in 2008, is a $162 billion company. They do not identify with struggling individuals fighting the odds. They target, exploit, and aim to coopt them. And Virginia Slims and Marlboros heedlessly kill them.

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More on tobacco brand display in films

Table | Who smokes brands in film?