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In the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement, the tobacco industry agreed to halt all marketing and promotion activities directed at children in the USA. Recently, however, Philip Morris may well have found a clever way to circumvent the spirit of this agreement. The Philip Morris Youth Prevention programme has been used as a vehicle through which to expose potentially 28 million school children to the name of Philip Morris on a daily basis—within the safety of their own classrooms.
Since spring 2000, Philip Morris has been a partner in the distribution of colourful book covers to schools around the USA (elementary, middle and high schools). The Philip Morris covers are emblazoned with the message, “Think. Don't Smoke”—and the name of Philip Morris. Some say that this youth focused initiative is little more than thinly veiled advertising, and that the inclusion of the company name is an attempt to build brand recognition. As ad testing research has shown, the company's anti-smoking messages (such as, “Think. Don't Smoke”) are very weak, compared to other anti-smoking messages produced by state tobacco control programmes. At the very least, these book covers nicely supplement Philip Morris' ongoing, national television campaign promoting the company as a good corporate citizen.
The sponsorship of school book covers is common practice with companies who market to children. It is usually seen as a win-win situation. The school gets needed protection for its precious resources, and children get an average of 5.5 months exposure to the company's name and image. Even better, from the viewpoint of Philip Morris, Primedia Cover Concepts, which distributes the book covers, has the capability to target particular audiences. If, for example, a company seeks to increase its sales among young Hispanics, suitable schools can be identified for distribution of the relevant covers. The criteria by which schools were chosen to receive Philip Morris covers is not clear and may not have been a random process.
Philip Morris' book cover campaign has, however, hit a snag in some school districts. Teachers, administrators, and students have proven highly distrustful of the company's most recent foray into schools, seeing the book covers as both invasive and manipulative. Teachers and public health officials in the “receiving districts” have raised suspicions that Philip Morris is targeting either schools in low income areas, or states in which children have been exposed to higher levels of anti-tobacco messages through comprehensive anti-smoking campaigns.
Teachers and students have taken positive action to reject the covers and to challenge Philip Morris's intentions. The rejection of these covers has been done publicly, with student led demonstrations and press conferences.
The level of scepticism has been such that students have identified numerous “subliminal messages” within the covers' images—including reports of being able to see tobacco leaves, cigarettes, matches, and even Joe Camel (an RJ Reynolds product) in the covers' images. The possibility of “subliminal messages” has whetted the interest of the press, and has led to considerable newspaper coverage advocating school rejection of the covers.
This coverage is not quite, one would presume, the kind of public relations exposure for which “The People of Philip Morris”, as they like to be known in their corporate advertising in the USA, were hoping.
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