PERSPECTIVE: Web is unexplored advertising haven for tobacco giants

Like most of you, I suspect Campaign’s headline last week, ’Labour plans quick move on tobacco ad ban’, was a confirmation of what we already guessed: tobacco has it coming. And since the ban will also encompass sports sponsorship, the media options for tobacco companies will, I imagine, be few and far between. That is, of course, except for the World Wide Web. If my job was to market tobacco, I’d be exploring every possible alternative and trying everything I could think of on the Web - the quintessential youth medium.

Like most of you, I suspect Campaign’s headline last week, ’Labour

plans quick move on tobacco ad ban’, was a confirmation of what we

already guessed: tobacco has it coming. And since the ban will also

encompass sports sponsorship, the media options for tobacco companies

will, I imagine, be few and far between. That is, of course, except for

the World Wide Web. If my job was to market tobacco, I’d be exploring

every possible alternative and trying everything I could think of on the

Web - the quintessential youth medium.



Now we’ve had lots of talk about the prevalence of porn on the Web and

much debate about how to keep it away from children, but why has nobody

thought about tobacco? After all, our concerns about tobacco advertising

are linked to under-age smoking, so why would we allow tobacco

advertising through the net?



I ask this because last month saw the launch of the first US Website by

a major tobacco company, Brown and Williamson, for Lucky Strike. Lucky

Strike’s line is that, no, the Circuit Breaker site isn’t really an ad

for tobacco but a guide to San Francisco clubs - ’an information

resource’, as those nice folks at Brown and Williamson like to

dissemble. And it’s sort of true in that

cross-your-fingers-behind-your-back way. The only clue from the site

itself is on a form that visitors have to complete in order to win a

free Circuit Breaker T-shirt, and some small print that states that

those filling in the form ’will be placed on a tobacco company’s mailing

list’.



But, wouldn’t you know it, all the clubs listed in Circuit Breaker are

those that just happen to participate in Lucky Strike promotions. What a

coincidence.



You could argue that there’s nothing morally wrong with this. You can’t

go to a club if you’re under 18, ergo Lucky Strike is not targeting

under-age smokers. But while you might just confuse a four-year-old with

that argument, the rest of us won’t fall for it. I can’t see what there

is to stop children or teenagers accessing this site. In fact, given

that it’s called Circuit Breaker and is all about clubbing, they’re much

more likely to access it than they are a more straightforward tobacco

company site or Web ad.



So there is a parallel between the use of a Website like this and a

poster: the latter is a broadcast medium open to any passing soul. Media

gurus like to make much of the one-to-one, narrowcast opportunities open

on the Web, but it is equally true that it can be a broadcast medium as

well, reaching casual passers-by just as posters do. Thus, you could

say, if tobacco is banned from posters, it should be excluded from the

Web, too.



What’s the answer? There’s self-regulation, but the more you drive

tobacco companies off mainstream media, the harder it becomes to police

their activities. Perhaps there’s something to be said for a total ban

after all.



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