Using Old Tobacco’s Tactics Against Them in a West Virginia Ad War

In the early 20th century, in a stroke of marketing genius, the Bloch Tobacco Company in Wheeling, W.Va., began paying farmers a modest sum to paint large advertisements for their Mail Pouch brand of chewing tobacco on barns across the region. Over the ensuing decades, until the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 put a crimp on this sort of roadside advertising, many thousands of these barns (actual estimates vary widely) were painted across the country.

Today, the aging barns enjoy a cult following of nostalgic “barnstormers” who travel the country cataloguing these fading relics of an earlier time. One of these devoted fans of the Mail Pouch barns is a West Virginian named Greg Puckett, who, by day, happens to be the director of Community Connections, a nonprofit substance abuse prevention organization in Princeton, W.Va.

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The breast cancer awareness barn from the nearby road. / Courtesy Community Connections.

“As a communications guy, I just found that to be a phenomenal campaign,” said Puckett.

He started brainstorming about ways of pairing the old Mail Pouch aesthetic with anti-tobacco message, and after months of pestering the state’s Division of Tobacco Prevention, Puckett finally wrangled a grant in 2009. It funded what he believes to be the country’s first barn advertisement for quitting chewing tobacco, in Monroe County, W.Va.

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A celebration of the breast cancer awareness barn. / Courtesy Community Connections.

It went over well, and in the years since, Puckett’s organization has painted one or two barns each year in different parts of the state. Most include the slogan “Treat Yourself to Health” – a riff on Mail Pouch’s exhortation to “Treat Yourself to the Best” – and a phone number for the state’s tobacco quitline. More recently, they’ve done two pink breast cancer-awareness barns.

‘If I could just save my two kids from chewing the daggone stuff, hopefully some other parents will take notice.’

The latest barn to join the anti-tobacco collection is the largest one yet, perfectly situated for visibility along a highway in Hampshire County, W.Va., and completed in the fall of 2013. When approached by Community Connections, owner Pete Peacemaker was happy to support the cause. Peacemaker has chewed tobacco since he was a boy, and, after multiple attempts to quit, is eager to keep his own twin boys and their peers from ever starting.

“If I could just save my two kids from chewing the daggone stuff, hopefully some other parents will take notice,” said Peacemaker, who recently fell off the wagon after a two-year period when he thought he’d finally licked the habit. “I know a lot of teenagers chew that stuff.”

All of the anti-tobacco barns in West Virginia have been painted by Scott Hagan, who bills himself The Barn Artist. Hagan grew up in Ohio and got his start by painting his dad’s barn in homage to the Ohio State Buckeyes. Soon thereafter, as his barn painting career began taking off, he sought advice from an elderly man who lived nearby named Harley Warrick, who painted or re-painted more than 20,000 Mail Pouch barns between 1946 and 1991. Warrick, who died in 2000, bequeathed Hagan some painting wisdom along with some old equipment, which Hagan continues to use today.

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Painting the new advertisement onto the barn. / Courtesy Community Connections.

Hagan himself has re-painted about a dozen Mail Pouch barns, and isn’t too ideological about the specifics of his barn commissions. He doesn’t use tobacco, and says his worst habit is sweet tea.

“I think it’s a good program. It’s a good way to get the message out,” he said, on his work with Puckett on the anti-tobacco barns. “[But] to me, Mail Pouch is … iconic. It’s a historical landmark.”

Puckett agrees, seeing a place for his contemporary public health message alongside historical preservation on barns across the Mountain State. This fall, he’s having Hagan paint one or two more anti-tobacco barns, bringing the total up close to 10, and plans to keep doing more and more.

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The inauguration of the quit spit tobacco barn. / Courtesy Community Connections.

The state’s aging collection of Mail Pouch barns are headed in the opposite direction, fading, peeling and falling down. Last year, four were lost, says Puckett, who may be the only anti-tobacco crusader around who’s concerned about disappearing tobacco advertising.

“I don’t want to lose the Mail Pouch barns either,” he said. “Even though I don’t believe in the message, I believe that they’re culturally significant to the state of West Virginia.”

Using Old Tobacco’s Tactics Against Them in a West Virginia Ad War