Tobacco Companies Fight Back With… | Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids
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Tobacco Companies Fight Back With Marketing Muscle

December 10, 1996

Washington, DC - Joe Camel does Vegas. No, it’s not an adult movie title. It’s the latest advertising campaign from R.J. Reynolds, makers of Camel cigarettes. The slick ads feature the cartoon camel gambling in Las Vegas, belly dancing and attending a laser show. The promotion includes free concert tickets, trips to Las Vegas parties, and Camel cash to buy everything from watches to CD players. Not to be outgunned, Philip Morris, the company behind the Marlboro Man, gave away five-day train rides through western states. Marketing gurus at tobacco companies spent an estimated $5 billion last year on advertising and promotions. Magazine ad spending on tobacco alone increased 12 percent for the first nine months of 1996, according to the ad agency McCann-Erickson. But while marketing departments tried to portray a thriving industry, other tobacco executives worked feverishly fending off leaked internal documents, a blizzard of lawsuits, new scientific studies documenting the adverse effect of tobacco advertising on children, an FDA rule to restrict the marketing of tobacco products to minors, and stronger, better-funded anti-tobacco campaigns. Indeed, 1996 was a tough year in the tobacco wars. But if the tobacco industry thought 1996 was a year to forget, 1997 promises to be deja vu all over again. 'Their strategy is to depict a robust industry, even as the walls are crumbling around them,' says Richard Pollay, professor of marketing and curator of the History of Advertising Archives at the University of British Columbia. Some of the industry's campaigns have drawn criticism for targeting young people. Anti-tobacco advocates say promotions like Philip Morris' cross-country train trips are particularly appealing to teenagers eager to assert their independence. 'The promotion associates Marlboro with images teens are looking for: adventure and autonomy,' says George Dessart, chairman of the American Cancer Society. 'It's another ploy to keep addicting new generations of customers.' In-store displays, free merchandise such as hats and backpacks, pop-out ads, eye-catching billboards and tobacco brand sponsorships at sporting events continue to draw fire as kid oriented. Tobacco company officials adamantly deny going after the youth market. But a series of internal documents that surfaced this year suggest otherwise. A R.J. Reynolds 1984 secret report revealed the company needed to pitch its cigarettes to young adults to 'replace' other smokers. The marketing report, noting smokers begin as early as 12, suggested the company 'should make a substantial long-term commitment of manpower and money dedicated to younger adult smoker programs.' The strategy to attract kids apparently has paid off. After the Joe Camel campaign was introduced in 1988, RJR's market share among underage smokers jumped from three to13 percent. Several new studies this year demonstrated the powerful effect of tobacco advertising on children. A study in the The Journal of Marketing concluded that teens are three times more sensitive to cigarette advertising than adults. The American Journal of Public Health found that seventh graders' exposure to cigarette marketing had a direct effect on their smoking behavior. With teenage smoking rates at their highest in 16 years, a group of advertising and marketing executives launched a program in November to confront the problem. The Initiative on Tobacco Marketing to Children has asked marketing communications professionals to curb marketing practices that attract young people to tobacco. 'While we support federal regulations, we believe the advertising industry has a duty to acknowledge the role their efforts play in encouraging kids to smoke and to initiate fundamental change on their own,' said William Novelli, president of the Campaign For Tobacco-Free Kids and one of the leaders of the effort. Novelli's group has endorsed the Food and Drug Administration rule to restrict tobacco marketing and sales to children. Tobacco executives now are bracing for 1997. Though the tobacco industry has filed a lawsuit to block implementation of the FDA rule, the regulation goes into effect early next year. More states will likely join the 20 already suing tobacco companies to recoup Medicaid costs, part of a mountain of litigation facing the tobacco industry next year. While tobacco lawyers race to court in 1997 to fend off new lawsuits and other broadsides, tobacco marketers will continue churning out new advertisements and promotions to keep their products in front of the public’s eyes. Anti-tobacco advocates will also be busy making sure those eyes do not include children’s.