We explored the evolution from cigarette product attributes to psychosocial needs in advertising campaigns for low-tar cigarettes. Analysis of previously secret tobacco industry documents and print advertising images indicated that low-tar brands targeted smokers who were concerned about their health with advertising images intended to distract them from the health hazards of smoking. Advertising first emphasized product characteristics (filtration, low tar) that implied health benefits. Over time, advertising emphasis shifted to salient psychosocial needs of the target markets. A case study of Vantage cigarettes in the USA and Canada showed that advertising presented images of intelligent, upward-striving people who had achieved personal success and intentionally excluded the act of smoking from the imagery, while minimal product information was provided. This illustrates one strategy to appeal to concerned smokers by not describing the product itself (which may remind smokers of the problems associated with smoking), but instead using evocative imagery to distract smokers from these problems. Current advertising for potential reduced-exposure products (PREPs) emphasizes product characteristics, but these products have not delivered on the promise of a healthier alternative cigarette. Our results suggest that the tobacco control community should be on the alert for a shift in advertising focus for PREPs to the image of the user rather than the cigarette. Global Framework Convention on Tobacco Control-style advertising bans that prohibit all user imagery in tobacco advertising could preempt a psychosocial needs-based advertising strategy for PREPs and maintain public attention on the health hazards of smoking.