OPINION: Tobacco industry ought to be straight about ads

If you want to make someone in advertising squirm, then ask them to defend tobacco advertising against the charge that it encourages young people to smoke. This is normally the cue for a prolonged bout of hand- wringing, followed by the assertion that tobacco ads don’t actually encourage people to smoke but are, in fact, all about persuading smokers to switch brands.

If you want to make someone in advertising squirm, then ask them to

defend tobacco advertising against the charge that it encourages young

people to smoke. This is normally the cue for a prolonged bout of hand-

wringing, followed by the assertion that tobacco ads don’t actually

encourage people to smoke but are, in fact, all about persuading smokers

to switch brands.



People working in the ad industry are shooting themselves in the foot.

It’s a bit like a publisher defending a libel action by claiming that

nobody read the magazine or newspaper. All advertising is about

encouraging people to try and/or buy more of a product, so it is

ridiculous to claim that tobacco ads are an exception to the rule.

Imagine saying to a financial services advertiser: ‘Of course, this

advertising isn’t about getting people to open a bank account, it’s only

designed to get them to move their banking from Barclays or Abbey

National.’



The ad industry has done this for years, while opponents of tobacco ads

rest their case on the power of advertising to change people’s

consumption habits, which is, to say the least, a strange state of

affairs. It’s not surprising then, that this is somewhat dodgy ground to

fight the case against tobacco advertising censorship, which explains

why the voluntary code of self-regulation is proving to be a thorn in

the ad industry’s side. You cannot defend advertising against its many,

and varied, opponents by denying that it does what it is supposed to do.



Belatedly, the industry seems to have come to its senses, which is why

the decision to shift the fight against tobacco censorship to the

European courts, and make it an issue of commercial freedom of speech

(Campaign, last week), may turn out to be a landmark.



Naturally, the tobacco companies may be reluctant to lead the way on

this issue. Certainly, they deserve the support of other clients but,

since they have the most to lose, they should not be backward about

coming forward.



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