January 29 2013

Have smoking adverts gone viral?

Since the first links between smoking and lung cancer were published by Richard Doll in 1950, legislation has been passed to try to control tobacco consumption. In addition to counter campaigns such as anti smoking adverts and specialist NHS services the Government restrict and regulate the tobacco industry in an unprecedented way. We’ve seen limits on smoking in public places, a ban on vending machines, compulsory warning messages on packets, excise taxes and unparalleled restrictions on advertising. This year the government are stepping up their game with more graphic campaigns and grotesque imagery.

Today most advertising campaigns are run online with a complementary social media campaign and since regulations began as early as the 1960s some of the most successful corporations, in one of the world’s largest industries, are unable to fully utilise any digital marketing. Furthermore, anti-smoking groups have been able to take full advantage of digital resources in the form of help quit websites, mobile apps, online adverts, infographics and web apps. So why do 157,000 children aged 11-15 start smoking every year in the UK? Why is smoking still a desirable thing to do? And why is brand loyalty still so strong – the highest of all consumer products?

The Government can ban tobacco firms from promoting smoking but they cannot ban the public from doing so. The tobacco industry invented marketing as we now know it. The first known advert for a cigarette brand was in 1789. The industry has a substantial legacy with strong, historically established brands to which few others can compare and this is not a market that is open to new entrants. These brand titans have been putting in the marketing ground work for the past 200 years.

Smoking image


As a result they are in a unique position; a comprehensive social media campaign is run - inadvertently - by smokers themselves. Whilst the only official smoking advertisements online are anti-smoking, there are ‘unofficial’ or implicit adverts for smoking all over the internet. Social media is full of indirect materials promoting smoking – photos, tweets, pinterest boards, discussions, polls, tumblrs, videos -  all posted solely by consumers which perpetuate the brand message and cannot be regulated easily by the Government.

The Government have to be very carefully when justifying the regulation the tobacco industry for fear of appearing paternalistic. It cannot look like it thinks it knows better and needs to protect us from ourselves or from the big bad tobacco firms. As a result, bans and restrictions are enforced with a focus on protecting children. Therefore, the focus of many campaigns is passive smoking and the messages are ‘I’m worried about mum/dad’, ‘you’re killing your children’ and the ‘only way to protect your family’ is to quit.

Tobacco firms have been equally ingenious in response – their apparent aims are not to attract non-smokers, only to try to get existing smokers to switch brands - but they’ve got themselves into trouble. With the cartoon character ‘Joe Camel’ R.J. Reynolds were accused of intentionally targeting children. Internal documents emerged claiming that children were the ‘future’s smokers’, detailing that brand allegiance is formed before age 18 and instructions for campaign materials to be distributed near schools. R.J. Reynolds denies this but voluntarily ended the campaign in 1997. A study into the accusations famously found that that at one point more 6 year old children could recognise Joe Camel than Mickey Mouse.

Joe Camel


So branding is important. It is powerful and the Government are worried. Branding is what gives your company an identity through slogans, name, colour, music etc. and advertising promotes this. Branding is what makes smoking ‘look cool’. It is renowned that teenagers are keen to ‘look cool’ and tend to be easily swayed by peer pressure – this has historically been sited as the main reason for teen smokers.

But whilst brand image was traditionally formed physically through packaging, labels and adverts, today brand image is predominantly created digitally. The brand ‘voice’ speaks through twitter, is showcased on the company website, interacts with consumers on Facebook and networks through LinkedIn. Therefore, every time someone tweets ‘need a ciggie #addicted’ or a picture is posted of someone smoking at a party, brand image is re-enforced. Smoking advertising has gone viral. It is shared, liked and retweeted constantly.

Due to past decades of years of truly extensive marketing - teamed with a highly addictive ingredient - the tobacco industry have a product that people want to share and promote of their own accord. Studies have noted for years how smokers tend to use their cigarettes as a ‘badge’, a ‘prop’, a ‘symbol’ and as long as they continue to do so - and post it on social media - they use their cigarettes to reflect and promote the brand image.

Smoking mos and patz

The irony is that this kind of promotion is so much more powerful than commercial, official, paid-for adverts. Consumers are much more likely to be swayed by what their best friend is posting or what Kate Moss is papped doing rather than a banner at the top of the page or an ad word on google. This is why businesses today work hard to create ‘share-able’ content on social media sites. This kind of marketing is self-perpetuating and there is not much the Government can do about it.

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  • Of course, Big Tobacco manufacturers aren't the only companies important to the tobacco industry. Companies such as Universal Corporation, DIMON, and Standard Commercial act as middlemen, buying from farmers and/or tobacco auctions and then processing and shipping leaf tobacco to manufacturers. Globally, other companies, such as Société BIC and Zippo Manufacturing, provide tobacco-related accoutrements; UST markets snuff and chewing tobacco; and companies such as Swedish Match sell a combination of tobacco-related products. Altadis, created from a merger of France and Spain's top tobacco producers, makes 50% of the cigars sold in the US. In Japan the tobacco industry is dominated by government-owned Japan Tobacco, which controls 75% of the market. Other top markets include Germany (dominated by Altria and Reemtsma Cigarettenfabriken), the UK (where smokes by Gallaher Group and Imperial Tobacco are preferred), and France. As discount manufacturers such as Commonwealth Brands chip away at market share, the global companies have increasingly turned to developing nations for new smokers. The Asia/Pacific region accounts for much of this new frontier. China, with some 25% of the world's 1.2 billion smokers, is the big prize. Government-owned China National Tobacco, the world's largest tobacco producer, principally serves China and the estimated 1.5 trillion in annual cigarette sales. Both Imperial Tobacco and Gallaher Group have signed agreements to produce and sell cigarettes in China.

    Posted by Shannon Grimes, 01/07/2013 9:51am (7 years ago)

  • What does transforming tobacco mean? It means helping to resolve some of the controversial issues related to the use of tobacco as we advance our commercial objectives. We can meet society’s expectations for how a tobacco company should operate while growing our businesses. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, like each of Reynolds American Inc.’s other operating companies, will play a leadership role in the industry in transforming tobacco.

    Posted by Gwendolyn W. Booker, 01/07/2013 9:51am (7 years ago)

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