Marketing Cigarette Packaging

So, I saw the British American Tobacco ad against plain packaging last night. I don’t watch a lot of TV, so I hadn’t come across it before. I actually saw it about three times through the course of the evening, assuming it was an ad for some kind of wine label, before my attention was caught by the mention of BAT.

Tobacco advertising used to be tremendously clever. The way that the tobacco industry broke open the female smoking market in 1929 with “Torches of Freedom” was precedent-setting and reaped the kind of success that the creeping male-cosmetics industry could only dream of today.

Bernays decided to attempt to eliminate the social taboo of women smoking in public. He gained advice from psychoanalyst A. A. Brill stated that it was normal for women to smoke because of oral fixation and said, “Today the emancipation of women has suppressed many of their feminine desires. More women now do the same work as men do. Many women bear no children; those who do bear have fewer children. Feminine traits are masked. Cigarettes, which are equated with men, become torches of freedom.”

But that was then, and this is now. Dark-grey ads promising doom for the wine industry and a message of: “Hey, let’s talk about this.” Barely veiled threats aren’t as cool as sneaky subliminal advertising. What happened, tobacco marketers? Been out of the game in New Zealand for too long?

Picture the scene. Robe-clad NZ tobacco executives exit the elevator, eyes slowly adjusting to the dim torchlit surroundings of Sub-Basement 17. Two approach the Chamber, taking keys from around their necks and standing either side of the Chamber’s massive vault door. Grim, their eyes meet, they nod once and simultaneously turn their keys.

Groaning metal protests as ancient mechanisms are set in motion. The executives step back and kneel as the Chamber door slowly opens, mist pouring out from the cryogenic temperatures within.

A voice rasps: “How long? How long have I slept?”

A kneeling exec shakily replies, “My Lord, nearly four decades have passed since the New Zealand government banned cigarette advertising.”

“The ban continues?”

“Yes, My Lord, but a new threat has arisen – they wish to force plain packaging on all of us!”

A hiss. “Unacceptable. Bring me my grey felt-tip pen and list of slippery-slope fallacies.”


A basic summary of their arguments is available at AgreeDisagree. It begins with, “There’s no proof that plain packaging would reduce smoking rates in New Zealand.” (And ends with kind of “don’t make us angry” and “what’s next – marrying your pets?!” threats and warnings.)

Perhaps the problem is that it’s just not possible to take the tobacco industry seriously, especially when they lead with “there’s no proof that…” Sounds vaguely familiar. But there’s a chance they’re right, at least in the short term, about that.

Plain-packaging will have several effects. In an immediate sense, a reduction in overall smoking isn’t one of them. People who smoke are addicted to smoking, not to any particular brand. They’ll keep doing it. It won’t immediately stop new smokers either. But what it will do is undermine tobacco companies’ abilities to develop brand loyalty and compete with each other for market share. And that’s genuinely frightening to them.

And plain-packaging will have long-term effects and lay the ground for further changes. Any plan for the last dying stages of the cigarette industry will involve nicotine addiction being considered a medical condition requiring medicinal prescription. The subconscious impact of a generation of smokers smoking from plain boxes with health warnings on them will set the foundations for that shift. And that’s the point where all differentiation between one cigarette company’s product and another’s will end.

There are strong arguments for the government not banning cigarette branding, of course. It’s a deeper ideological argument, however, than the majority of New Zealanders care to engage with – questioning paternalism in general, etc. And so BAT are forced to try to find things everyday Kiwis can relate to, like “they’re gonna take your wine labels next”. Not because they’re worried people will stop smoking cigarettes, but because they’re worried people will stop smoking their cigarettes.

I leave you with the brilliant Fifth Element.

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