Thursday, June 4, 2009


Tobacco companies have successfully used basic and simple marketing tactics for years; even if it meant irreversible damage to society. It’s high time we beat them at their own game.

It’s interesting that rotting teeth, lungs infected with cancer and a slew of other horrendous and horrifying images will adorn cigarette packets in India from this month (June onwards). Another interesting development occurred in Washington a few days back. A federal appeals court upheld a landmark 2006 ruling on 22nd May that cigarette makers for decades have been lying about the dangers of smoking “In a 93-page opinion, a three- judge panel cleared the way for new restrictions on how cigarette companies market and sell their products,” stated the Washington Post. What is it that makes marketing and selling of cigarettes so different that it required a 93-page letter to help reduce their effect, if not stop it totally? What is that that these companies have been doing that’s so harmful to our society. What weapons do they use & what’s their game plan?

Advertising and marketing are nothing but means of persuading consumers to buy the desired brand or product and it’s the tobacco industry that seems to have mastered the art over the years. For, according to some surveys, about two thousand teenagers begin to smoke each day, inspite of the fact that smoking is the number one killer in preventable deaths in a nation. Yet it’s persuasive marketing & advertising that ensures that thousands bite the bait and buy these harmful products. This happens is because cigarette companies thrive on “Image Culture” and use it to the hilt to sell their wares.

The television was invented in the 1930’s and for many years, no one thought it had any use. They had the radio for their entertainment and if it tired them out, they all went to the movies. Who needed television – no one! What needed television – the economy. It needed the television to tell to the world, about life in a consumer society. It needed to show “Images” of success, progress, happiness. It’s the cigarette companies who learnt this lesson the best and used these images to camouflage the potent danger of their products. It chose its target audience cautiously and bombarded them with judiciously selected images. The target that was the best, the easiest and the fastest to convince was the “gullible teenagers”. A study revealed that what each teenager feared most was being labeled “uncool” and hence started the “marketing of cool”. This strategy proved to be most successful, for, according to 1981 internal document of Philip Morris (largest Cigarette Company in the world), “Today’s teenager is tomorrow’s potential regular customer, and the overwhelming majority of smokers first begin to smoke while still in their teens. The smoking patterns of teenagers are particularly important to Philip Morris.” With the mission & vision statement clear, cigarette companies started targeting the vulnerable minds of teenagers through marketing schemes & campaigns. They bombarded them with images of “cool”. Tobacco companies used themes that appealed to the young minds; images of fun, action, excitement. Now you could look macho if you had a Marlboro in your hands. Strand Cigarette claimed “you’re never alone with a Strand”. “I’d walk a mile for Camel,” vowed many cigarette addicts. A women was successful if she held a Virginia Slims between her beautiful fingers for “You’ve come a long way” (read achieved success) if you smoked Virginia Slims. Sex appeal; cartoon characters, movie star status – every conceivable tool was used for years by tobacco companies to convince people that if you smoked, you had a life. Every claim of happiness was backed by a stunningly beautiful picture – that made every onlooker want a life like that. Worse still, it made smoking look like a fun activity – not a product that could kill.

The power of advertising lies in the power of repetition and the advertising industry has used this weapon to hijack the minds of young & old alike for years. Advertisers spend billions of dollars planting slogans in our minds. No wonder when it comes to safety, the fi rst car one thinks of is “Volvo”. “Just do it” said in any context always brings to mind “Nike”. Advertising man and author Kenneth Goode wrote, “The greatest of all advertising tricks is that of persistently pounding away at the same suggestion while still keeping the appearance of freshness of idea.” So while the message remained the same, the tobacco companies used a variety of carefully picked images to drive home the point – that it was “cool” to smoke.

According to recent estimates, tobacco companies were spending close to 34 million dollars everyday on advertising. Talk of repetition – they were using every conceivable form of media to reach out to their target audience and repeatedly convince them into believing the “cool” quotient of their product. A survey conducted in 2002 revealed that 86% of childhood smokers favour Camel, Marlboro and Newport cigarettes – the most heavily advertised brands. The mantra was simple - double your advertising revenue if you want to double your sales. In the nineties, Joe Camel Company increased their ad campaign from $27 million to $43 million, capturing shares of over 50% of youth smokers. Interestingly though, their share in the adult market remained practically unchanged. It’s the children who fall prey to these tactics – they are the softest target. According to Naomi Klein’s famous book No Logo, “…poor neighborhoods have a disproportionately high number of billboards selling tobacco and hard liquor products… the ads always feature models sailing, skiing, playing golf, making these addictive products particularly glamorous to kids stuck in the ghetto longing for escape.”

In 1998, when several laws were passed in America curbing the vast reach of these companies, they changed their game plan. Being restricted from showing their ads in various places - tobacco companies had to cut down their ad spending drastically. The money they saved thus was used in giving free cigarettes and price discounts to retailers – making the problem even more serious. Not only were the cigarettes displayed prominently in stores, but now they were more affordable. That glamorous life you saw in the ads could be yours – at a lesser cost. The list of freebies kept increasing. So now tobacco companies included T-shirts, CD player & bags as promotional items. So even if you did not buy the product, you still used the “brand” and were aware of it. Even though one saw less of advertisements, one never failed to see the “brand names”.

Joe Camel uses the cartoon image of Camel to make its products look harmless and sometimes even look like it’s suitable for children. A research done by American Federal Trade Commission found that 86% of kids aged 10 to 17 recognized the character Joe Camel. Shocking! With so much spending power and such strong image marketing, is there any way one can beat these tobacco companies?

Absolutely. If “images” is what they were playing with all these years, then it was these images, which were used by some to several the true meaning behind these glamorous ads. So “Adbusters”, the Canadian magazine, altered the images and slogans of popular advertisements to show the correct pictures. Absolut Vodka and its series of advertisements changed to Absolut Death. “Ultra Cool” became “Utter Fool”. It did make you laugh & smile, but it drove home the point too.

With most of the products being more – or – less similar, today it’s “images” that make or change people’s perceptions. GM filed for bankruptcy a few days back, which changed people’s perception about the company & its products. On Wednesday (3rd June), the company was ready with its ads; educating people about its future plans. The 60-second spot promised viewers leaner, greener, faster cars. After all, it claimed, “This it not about going out of business; this is about getting down to business.” If it really wanted to survive, it certainly needed a positive image.

In this game of images, putting those horrendous scary pictures on cigarette packets might work. Some may shout themselves hoarse that this was too much intrusion by the government, but it’s time we did something about it. May be the adult smokers might not get affected much, but the young could be deterred from getting addicted.

Advertisers & marketers hold tremendous power in their hands and we made sure that power was in the right hands. It’s time we took to task people who misuse this power. It’s time we started advertising responsibly.

1 comment:

  1. Well,

    Ma'am you raised an interesting issue here. Has business any thing to do with ethics. I mean are the two related.

    Well the observed fact of Indian Business Terrain is that pushing sales at any cost, even Hoax is considered the hip thing.

    So there are bad people with bad habits and truck loads of Money, this money corporations need to show Huge Topline and Bottomline.

    Hence as a matter of fact, to fight Unethical Advertising, govt is doing its bit by bold big warning's. More can be done.


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