Few advertising briefs have proved tougher to crack than the one
whose declared aim is to convince millions of British smokers to kick
Fed up with what they perceive as government persecution and social
exclusion, smokers have drawn the wagons into a circle to keep the
health fascists - and advertising’s do-gooders - at bay.
While teenage smokers delight in defying appeals not to put their lives
at risk, older tobacco addicts, especially those stuck on the 16th floor
of an inner-city tower block, resent officialdom’s attempts to deny one
of the few pleasures left to them. What’s more, smokers of all ages have
been locked in by some of the most creative advertising of modern
But things are about to change. The Labour Government, whose opposition
to tobacco promotion is a long-held article of faith, is about to commit
pounds 50 million over the next three years to play the tobacco industry
at its own game.
Most of the war-chest will be spent by Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO. It is
the agency’s prize for winning a four-way pitch that is a precursor to
the most concerted-ever campaign to cut the annual 120,000
Its timing could not be more apposite. On 10 December, all press,
magazine and poster advertising for tobacco products - into which the
industry has been ploughing an estimated pounds 50 million a year - will
cease. Although the ban on direct marketing of tobacco has been delayed
until July 2000, those promoting the anti-smoking message will soon have
the field to themselves - and they’ll have the resources to carry the
crusade to those who have resisted it most.
Even those heavily involved in cigarette promotion concede that such a
dramatic swing in the balance of advertising power will have an
’With so much money being spent - and provided the strategy is right -
it would be naive to pretend the campaign will have no effect,’ a senior
agency executive working on tobacco business says.
The key question is what that strategy should be. Ministers are thought
to have taken their cue from Australia where a three-year ad campaign
taking a ’stick and carrot’ approach combining graphic warnings with
promises of practical help to would-be quitters has proved to be
effective. There is also a belief that, as more workplaces ban smoking,
advertising may encourage more smokers to take the final step and give
The Australian experience also suggests that a successful campaign
targeting adult smokers will have a knock-on effect on teenagers,
particularly weight-watching girls with cigarette-smoking role models
like Kate Moss. ’If you can persuade adults, teenagers will buy into it
because they want to be seen as grown-ups,’ an industry source
In the US, efforts to curb teenage smoking have translated into
advertising that portrays the tobacco industry as the Evil Empire:
dissembling, immoral and highly manipulative. One commercial, by
Florida’s Crispin Porter agency, shows cigarette company chiefs
testifying before Congress to the sound of mocking laughter.
Another, by Arnold Communications in Boston, shows a young girl smoking
while a voiceover warns: ’The tobacco industry needs your child. It’s an
economic imperative. It’s nothing personal. It’s just business - minus a
Arnold has pledged to continue demonising the tobacco barons following
its appointment last month to handle the four-year dollars 1 billion
national anti-smoking campaign financed by the settlement between
tobacco companies and state governments.
Ed Eskandarian, Arnold’s chief executive, says: ’The youth of America
are sceptical of business and we think they will be outraged when they
see how the tobacco companies have lied for so long.’
The brief to agencies pitching for the UK account is understood to have
made it clear that the advertising should not vilify tobacco companies,
which remain a huge source of tax revenue.
There is fear also that to attack tobacco companies could create a seige
mentality, uniting them with smokers in a common cause.
’Public hostility to tobacco companies is much higher in the US than the
UK,’ Amanda Sanford, an Action on Smoking and Health executive,
’We have a long way to go in educating people in Britain about how
deceitful the industry has been.’
Not surprisingly, tobacco companies want the emphasis of the
Government’s campaign to be on curbing under-age smoking and adult
smokers to be left alone.
And industry sources suggest the manufacturers will play hardball if
they find themselves being bashed up by the new anti-smoking blitz. Four
companies have already challenged the European Union directive on
tobacco advertising in the European Court.
Meanwhile, it is likely that the companies will subject the Department
of Health’s advertising to close scrutiny and will call on the
Advertising Standards Authority and the Independent Television
Commission to act at the first sign of perceived unfairness.
Whether the Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association would be able to make its
own case through advertising is a moot point. ’We won’t know until we
see the final regulations which are still in draft form,’ John Carlisle,
the TMA’s public affairs director, says.
What’s clear is that the Government’s aim of reducing the number of
smokers from one in four of the UK population to the one in six
proportion achieved in California will take years.
’The advertising must keep grinding away and keep people watching it,’ a
source close to the pitch says. ’It mustn’t scare them so much that they
want a fag.’