About 5 weeks ago, we got a call from BBC Radio Nottingham, to ask whether we would be willing to be interviewed on Mark Dennison’s show regarding tobacco and e-cigarette marketing, in the week that the Imperial Brands’ Horizon factory is closing down. It is the last cigarette factory in England and based in Nottingham, so it seemed appropriate for a Nottingham marketing agency to be part of the story and it was great to be asked.
As it was to be our first radio appearance, the pressure was on to do a good job. Not just for The Wonderland, but for the radio show and for marketing professionals in general.
And so my research started. From old T.V. advertisements and visits to vaping shops, to scanning the news and watching T.V. programmes with a different eye, I really did have tobacco on the brain for a good few weeks.
As tobacco advertising has been banned for some years now, you can understand the challenges that exist in marketing these products. Viewed from a different perspective however, there are still ways in which tobacco firms receive significant marketing support and free publicity; through users themselves.
Smoking on display
Firstly, YouTube has plenty of videos of popstars, actors and other celebrities smoking and making it look cool and aspirational. After all, they’re successful, right?
Secondly, we are seeing an increase of it on the big and the small screen. Films like “A Most Wanted Man”, “Training Day”, “The Place beyond the Pines” and “Vicky Christina Barcelona” show their main characters smoking. The law states that ‘smoking may be included if it is of relevance to the period which the film/TV programme portrays’ however, the above do not fit in that – excuse the pun – picture.
On the small screen, period dramas like “Endeavour”, “Mad Men”, “Call the Midwife”, “The Durrells” and “Peaky Blinders” do the same thing, weaving smoking into the story.
These programmes and films may not be aimed at a young audience but, considering that smoking was banned partly because of the influence on the younger generations, the real question is: is showing smoking in films and T.V. programmes necessary to achieve authenticity, or is there a bit of sneaky product placement going on?
The Entertainment Industries Council (EIC), which promotes the accurate depiction of health and social issues in film and television, urges film-makers to consider whether smoking is really important to the story or just part of the scenery, pushing for more realistic portrayals of smoking.1
After a 50% decline in the amount of smoking occurring during films in the 1980s, a 2013 study published in the American Journal of Public Health showed that the on-screen smoking rate is now higher than it was in the 1950s (10.9 times per hour, compared to 10.7 times in the 1950s). 2
In addition, a study published by the WHO earlier this year shows that 36% of films rated for young people in 2014 contained smoking, and is pushing for adult ratings accordingly.3
Another way in which tobacco firms continue to exert influence, albeit in the back ground, is through social communities, talking to existing smokers. This is done either through competitions (Marlboro Ranch) or through sites like Smoke Spots, run by Imperial Tobacco. This is allowed, even though Smoke Spots has come under fire from cancer charity Action on Smoking and Health (Ash) in Scotland, provided these messages are aimed strictly at existing smokers and adhere to the advertising restrictions.
A new opportunity
As the tobacco market is still in decline, tobacco firms are hedging their bets by investing in e-cigarettes, non-tobacco products that contain nicotine. When comparing advertising, it is interesting to observe that these are marketed in almost exactly the same way as cigarettes used to be.
Think about it, they use personalities in their ads, emphasise the sexual attractiveness, associate themselves with ‘winners’ (this can represent itself through persons that are perceived and sophisticated, who are using the product), diversify the product through adding flavours (menthol cigarettes, anyone?)
With little specific regulation in place at the time and the products not containing tobacco, it provided a massive opportunity for e-cigarette firms to grow the number of users, either through converting smokers, or otherwise.
Several of the initial ‘vaping’ advertisements on T.V. were banned in 2013/2014. In particular, the ad with the baby doing Gangnam-style moves, that included comedian Mark Benton, received 65 complaints.4 At the time, the regulator noted that e-cigarettes were a relatively new product, adding that it was “important that such ads made the nature of the product being advertised clear”.
It concluded “Because we considered that the content of the ad would be of particular interest to children and also referred to smoking, we concluded that the ad breached the code.”
Another advertisement was criticised by several organisations for its overt sexual nature and for ‘normalising smoking’.
The ban on e-cigarette advertising
Since I started my research, there have been lots of developments in the industry. Firstly, plain packaging has come into force for tobacco products, and small packs of cigarettes will no longer be available, because they don’t allow enough space for the warning message that needs to accompany the product.
Secondly, although e-cigarettes have not been proven good or bad either way, the Tobacco Products Directive, which came into force on 20 May, included an immediate ban on e-cigarette advertising on T.V., radio and internet. From a marketing perspective, that seems an odd decision, considering cinema, leaflet and bus advertising is still allowed and can be seen by under-18s. Blogging and tweeting is also allowed, provided it isn’t paid for, or influenced by manufacturers.
So, where does that leave cigarettes, and e-cigarettes for that matter?
The decline in smokers is slowing, and tobacco firms are still increasing their profits, albeit by lower percentages. E-cigarettes is their opportunity in the short term, enabling them to convert smokers to use alternatives rather than encouraging them to quit. This is, ironically, exactly what happened in tobacco advertising last century.
And, whether they choose to or not, celebrities and celebrity culture will continue to be allies, both in keeping cigarettes cool, and advocating the use of e-cigarettes going forward.
In the interview with Mark Dennison, I tried to convey this contradiction. You can still listen to the interview via http://www.thewonderland.co.uk/audio/Inge-Interview.mp3
Written by Inge de Gooijer
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- Copyright of “More doctors smoke Camels” image RJ Reynolds