CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/TOBACCO ADVERTISING BAN - Tobacco companies prepare to go out in style with final ads

A ban will not hit agencies as hard now as it would in the 80s.

So it's true - it really isn't over 'til the fat lady sings. Not as far as tobacco advertising goes, anyway. The news that M&C Saatchi is working on a cracking swan song for Gallaher's Silk Cut, complete with fat ladies, has spawned much discussion about the creative heritage of the sector.

But with the 14 February ban looming ever closer, the impact of banning tobacco advertising on the poster and outdoor sectors is likely to cause some concern. The Tobacco Advertising and Promotions Bill bans any form of advertising, including press, the internet and the crucial poster medium.

It also bans the promotion of smoking through companies handing out samples in bars, or distributing coupons or mailshots. Only "exceptional global events" escape the ban, but Formula One teams and other sporting competitions which rely on tobacco sponsorship only have until October 2006 to find new ones - quite a blow when annual revenue from tobacco sponsorship rings in at £223 million each year.

So if they can't advertise their products or encourage smoking through normal marketing channels, what can manufacturers do? There will also be tighter legislation applying to retailers, who will not be able to display brand names over point-of-sale gantries. And spin-off ranges of clothes, if they were introduced after the tobacco product, will be axed too, which means Marlboro and Camel will no doubt be rethinking their quality clothing and accessories ranges. It could also cause problems for Dunhill, which started selling clothes before moving into the tobacco sector.

Camel boots and racing cars aside, poster sites have always attracted the lion's share of tobacco advertising, Concorde's chairman, Alan Simmons, says: "Twenty years ago, the outdoor sector was known as the booze 'n' baccy sector. Cigarettes and alcohol took a 40 per cent share of the medium and the manufacturers spent a fortune on buying space."

Presumably, then, the imminent ban on tobacco poster advertising is going to mean outdoor companies will suffer, forced - in a harsh enough climate - to fill a considerable hole in their portfolios?

Not necessarily, Simmons claims. He argues that the industry won't suffer as much as it might have done if the ban had come into force when today's Labour government had first mooted it. He argues that the traditionally high spend has been scaled down substantially from the heydays of the 80s.

"Tobacco companies have been scaling down on above-the-line advertising for some years in anticipation of a total ban," he says. "It's been a gentle decline, but more and more of the budget has been ploughed into sponsorship. The writing has been on the wall for tobacco advertising ever since Labour got into power," he says.

Simmons says the slack caused by this decline has been vigorously taken up by clients from outside the tobacco and alcohol industries. "Poster sites these days are home to all manner of clients - the balance has shifted considerably." He says retailers will be the next big outdoor-biased clients.

"In Europe, retailers take the majority of poster sites and I predict this will happen in the UK."

One senior executive on a tobacco account says manufacturers have absorbed much of their once enormous marketing budgets into price cuts on less well-known brands. "Even if they're not being targeted through above-the-line advertising, people respond to price cuts on second-tier brands, which makes it a viable strategy going forward for the manufacturers," he says.

Even so, agencies have been quick off the mark to get those last-minute campaigns signed off in time for next year's ban. Apart from M&C's campaign, which is rumoured to involve special 3D poster sites featuring plastic models of women and megaphones blasting out music, cdp-travissully is also working on plans for a sendoff campaign for Gallaher's Hamlet brand and has just launched new poster work for the Hamlet Aromatics sub-brand.

Simmons does have a warning, however, for regional poster contractors: "The majority of the sites used in the UK are found in the north - mostly because of the simple fact that more people smoke in those regions." He says companies operating there could see some fallout for their billings, which they will need to replace from somewhere.

If the industry can switch seamlessly toward attracting new smokers through other means and they have gradually decreased their adspends to compensate, so too have their agencies. Although neither M&C nor cdp-travissully would comment for this piece, they are unlikely to feel the pinch too much come February, when they effectively lose their respective Gallaher accounts.

The loss will come through the creative opportunities offered by iconic brands such as Silk Cut and Marlboro, one senior agency staffer says.

"There's no doubt that cigarette advertising has presented agencies with some of their best work over the years and we will be gutted to stop producing great work on those brands. Even though the spend has dwindled, losing the creative opportunity is a great loss."


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