Objective: To analyse the development and execution of the “Creative Solutions” Benson & Hedges advertising campaign to understand its social, political, and commercial implications.
Methods: Searches of the Philip Morris documents and Legacy Tobacco Documents websites for relevant materials; Lexis/Nexis searches of major news and business publications; and denotative and connotative analyses of the advertising imagery.
Results: Philip Morris developed the Creative Solutions campaign in an effort to directly confront the successes of the tobacco control movement in establishing new laws and norms that promoted clean indoor air. The campaign’s imagery attempted to help smokers and potential smokers overcome the physical and social downsides of smoking cigarettes by managing risk and resolving internal conflict. The slogans suggested a variety of ways for smokers to respond to restrictions on their habit. The campaign also featured information about the Accommodation Program, Philip Morris’s attempt to organise opposition to clean indoor air laws.
Conclusion: The campaign was a commercial failure, with little impact on sales of the brand. Philip Morris got some exposure for the Accommodation Program and its anti-regulatory position. The lack of commercial response to the ads suggests that they were unable to successfully resolve the contradictions that smokers were increasingly experiencing and confirms the power of changing social norms to counter tobacco industry tactics.
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Cigarette advertising has the commercial agenda of selling a brand, and the social agenda of promoting smoking. Such promotion requires resolving the contradictions associated with tobacco use. For example, many smokers start in adolescence to fit in socially, but clean indoor air laws and changing norms increasingly mean that smoking is not permitted in social settings. Cigarette advertising imagery must overcome this contradiction to enable smokers and potential smokers to justify adopting or maintaining the habit.
Cigarette companies also advertise to support their political agendas. These efforts frequently use “advertorials”—advertisements addressing a particular issue. However, it is rare for a tobacco company to combine political and product advertising.1
This study analyses a Philip Morris (now Altria)2 ad campaign that explicitly and implicitly merged commercial, social, and political agendas. These ads, which promoted Benson & Hedges (B&H) cigarettes in the USA from 1994 through 1996, were known internally as the “Creative solutions” campaign. The campaign aimed at helping smokers manage the physical and social risks of smoking, thus resolving the social contradictions created by clean indoor air laws. The ads also promoted Philip Morris’s Accommodation Program, which undermined US efforts to establish clean indoor air laws and regulations. The campaign reveals Philip Morris’s need to respond politically and commercially to tobacco control success at denormalising smoking.
Data were collected from the Philip Morris Incorporated Document Website (http://www.pmdocs.com/) and Legacy Tobacco Documents Library (http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu), which provide access to millions of company documents released as a result of the multiple state attorneys general settlement and other cases. Between 11 July 2001 and 6 March 2003, we searched the websites for documents related to this ad campaign. We used a variety of search terms including “Creative Solutions,” “Accommodation,” and “Benson & Hedges.” Searches were extended using names of individuals, dates, and other indexing information in a “snowball” search strategy. Further information on document collections and searching strategies is provided in earlier work.3 In addition, major US newspapers were reviewed for the relevant period. Finally, the 13 different executions that constituted this ad campaign were acquired and their imagery analysed denotatively (that is, for the literal content of the ad) and connotatively (that is, for the meaning conveyed by the ad). This descriptive case study is based on a review of the advertisements, 430 industry documents, and Lexis/Nexis searches of over 50 newspapers.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the US tobacco control movement was having unprecedented success. In 1986, the Surgeon General issued a report declaring secondhand smoke to be a health hazard.4 The resulting transformation of smoking from a personal choice affecting only smokers to a social problem that endangered others fuelled the passage of clean indoor air laws. By 1993, when the Environmental Protection Agency identified secondhand smoke as a class A (human) carcinogen,5 over 800 such laws had been enacted.6 Media coverage was increasingly sympathetic to clean indoor air advocates and dismissive of the claims of tobacco spokespeople.7 The climate for smoking was changing rapidly.
Meanwhile, Philip Morris was developing a new ad campaign for B&H. The campaign for which B&H was best known was its first, “Oh, the Disadvantages”. These ads humorously suggested that B&H’s 100 mm (extra long) length posed a variety of difficulties for its smokers (for example, getting caught in elevator doors), who nonetheless chose it for its taste. The brand did fairly well, rising to a 5% market share in 1983.8 However, by 1989, Philip Morris senior vice president of marketing David Dangoor was calling B&H “our biggest brand challenge”.9 The brand’s share had dropped to a 2.5% share by 1993.10
In that year, B&H smokers were middle aged (over 35 years old), female, and “highly sensitive to anti-smoking pressure”. They were leaving the brand by quitting, choosing cheaper brands, or switching to lower tar cigarettes. A report hypothesised that “In today’s environment of anti-smoking fervor and smoker guilt...enjoyment and image may no longer be enough to create a switcher... advertising can only draw in new smokers or those competitive smokers who have convinced themselves to switch.”11 In other words, switchers changed brands to reduce their guilt, so they moved to lower tar (perceived as healthier) or cheaper (better value) brands.12 Switching to a premium brand such as B&H for “taste” or image was rare. So the brand team had to hold onto a market of middle-aged women and attract a much younger group (new smokers) as well as poorly defined, self-motivated switchers.
The new B&H advertising strategy was “Empathy”: ads were to suggest that the brand “understood” smokers’ feelings about the practical and social contradictions of smoking. Many ad campaigns invent problems for their products to solve—for example, “feminine hygiene.” In the case of the “Disadvantages” ads for B&H, because everyone recognised that the overlong cigarette “problem” wasn’t real, there was no need to “solve” it. In the new B&H ads, by contrast, Philip Morris used a real problem. The ads explicitly referenced smokers’ difficulties with clean indoor air laws and regulations.
Meetings in June 1993 between premium brand manager Suzanne LeVan and Doug Porter of Leo Burnett, the advertising agency, focused on the message that “smoking B&H 100’s...is worth the societal hassles...because of its great, quality taste [ellipses in original].” However, there was concern about “whether consumers really want to be reminded of the social pressures and constraints, and whether associating this environment with a brand is a positive thing.”13 LeVan wondered if consumers “love it because it recognizes their daily hassles, or do they hate it because it reminds them of how terrible the situation is??? [sic]”14 But she told Porter her “hunch” was that they would “hit pay dirt” with the Empathy strategy.14
Under the Empathy rubric, three campaigns were developed. By early August, focus groups with people who smoked or might switch to B&H15 were testing preliminary executions of these conceptions, which were called “Apology”, “Hurdles”, and “Creative Solutions”. Apology showed situations in which smokers were missing, presumably because they were out smoking (for example, an empty bank teller’s cage). Clean indoor air rules were keeping smokers from their jobs. But focus group participants saw irresponsible smokers inconveniencing others. “Too many of our participants felt that these ads would further fuel negative attitudes and images about smokers... ‘They’re not doing their job, they’re off having a cigarette.’”16 The company dropped the Apology concept.16,17 Another problem with this campaign was that it showed neither cigarettes nor smokers.
Hurdles showed the difficulties of getting to the smoking section, implying that smoking sections were excessively burdensome, and that B&H made the difficulty worthwhile. The “hurdles” included walking a tightrope high above a busy street, crossing a crocodile filled pond on stepping stones, and walking across a bed of burning coals (fig 1).18 Focus groups were both entertained and disturbed. The problem was that “the obstacles shown...appeared too great, not worth it.” Some respondents “indicated ‘if it came to that, I’d probably stop smoking altogether.’”19 This was not the message that Philip Morris wanted to convey.
Creative Solutions suggested innovative places for smokers to light up, now that smoking was banned in the usual locations. Billboards and magazine ads showed crowds of happy smokers on top of moving trains, lounging in the hands of caryatids in the frieze of a building, perched on bunches of party balloons above festive throngs, dining on the ledges of an art deco building, and relaxing on the crown of the Statue of Liberty (figs 2–4). The tag line was “The length you go to for pleasure,” referencing the cigarette’s 100 mm length and suggesting that smokers were well rewarded by the cigarette for the trouble they had to take to smoke.
The predominant unstated theme of the ads is managing the risks of smoking. Overall rates of smoking prevalence were declining steadily,20 but the industry attempted, through advertising and the development of new products, to allay people’s fears about the well known health risks. Such efforts generally focused on “low tar” cigarettes that implied reduced exposure to toxins.21–23
The B&H ads were subtler. The imagery focused on groups of people forced by strict clean air regulations to smoke in a variety of unlikely places. These locations were nearly always physically impossible (for example, the wing of a plane in flight, as shown in fig 2) or at least highly risky (the ledge of a building, as shown in fig 4). No safety precautions were visible. But even as the models were risking their lives for the opportunity to smoke, they were relaxed and comfortable. The draft on the airplane wing made reading a newspaper a bit tricky, but otherwise the ads show no inconvenience, let alone danger.
This imagery was a visual metaphor for the attitude the tobacco industry promotes about smoking: the risk is obvious, but insignificant. The people in the ads were not defying death or facing down danger. They were joyfully oblivious to it, and their insouciance made it disappear. These people were so comfortable, and their situations so preposterous, that it was possible to observe their pleasure without anxiety. The ads conveyed this cavalier attitude about the danger of falling off a speeding train, and the dangers of smoking were implicitly rendered just as trivial.
Social risk was also addressed in the ads. As smoking grew more unacceptable, non-smokers were empowered by laws, regulations, and social norms to ask smokers to put out their cigarettes. The accumulation of these interactions created tensions between smokers and non-smokers, and made smokers consider whether lighting up would relieve or add to their stress.
The B&H ads resolved this predicament by featuring non-smokers in positions of authority. The non-smokers gave the smokers permission to be in their unusual locations and to smoke. A park ranger pointed out sights on the Statue of Liberty;24 a conductor took tickets on top of the train; a waitress served customers in the sombrero sign over a taco stand; and a flight attendant dispensed drinks on the airplane wing. Other ads were subtler. The restaurant ledge was shared by a violinist playing for the patrons. The public building embodied its own approval of the smoker cradled in the hand of its caryatid. The executions showing purely social situations (houses, clotheslines) were the exception—no authority figure was shown at home. Including non-smokers in the ads was a deliberate tactic to “minimize smoker alienation” and “sense of exclusion”.24
Social risk was also minimised by the population of the ads. Whereas most cigarette ads show only a few people, these ads had between five and 19. And unlike most cigarette ads, particularly from this period,25 these used a mix of races and often generations. Focus group responses suggested there was comfort in numbers. The best ads depicted smokers as “the majority, ‘popular’ (not alone [or] in small groups)”.19 Indeed, the number and mix of people served to suggest a whole society of smokers, with a few approving non-smokers, heightening the absurdity of the smokers’ exile to their precarious locations.
The attitude of the smokers, as Philip Morris intended it, evoked “positive images about the ‘smoking section’ to link to consumers’ desires to visualize: a positive self-image; a place I want to be.”16 Leo Burnett concluded that “A better view, being able to enjoy a nice day, etc. all help in making the situation more appealing, but the expressions, posture and attitude of the smokers are the biggest indicator that they are in a better place.”26 The relative height of the smoking sections suggested aspiration, as well as risk. Most of the non-smokers were invisible, and implicitly underneath–inside the Statue of Liberty, or the train, or the house. The smokers were on top of the world. Social exile was transformed into social desirability, the place everyone wanted to be.
“SOLUTIONS” TO CLEAN INDOOR AIR
The first line of the slogans used in the Creative Solutions ads pointed to the difficulties clean air laws and regulations posed to those used to smoking anywhere. Of the 13 different executions, eight referred to increasingly strict rules by using such words and phrases as “today”, “these days”, and “it’s getting harder”. The others emphasised the difficulties of smoking at work, on transportation, and at home or with friends.
The second lines of the slogans suggested a variety of solutions to the smokers’ dilemma. The tone in which the “solutions” were proffered ranged from compromising to aggressive. Some executions used mild puns to emphasise the absurdity of the visuals: “Just wing it” on the airplane, for example. Two of the ads, Fast Food and Clothesline, proposed that smokers exit an unwelcoming venue. The Building and Party ads suggested that compromise was possible. However, the preceding clause “For a great smoke” or “For Benson & Hedges 100s” made it clear that compromise did not mean not smoking.
Several of the ads were more assertive in content, urging smokers to stand up to the restrictions. The Statue of Liberty ad (fig 3) was the strongest (using a tremendous visual symbol for freedom), asking “Ever wonder why she’s holding a light?” and telling smokers to “take a few liberties”. An earlier version of the ad was even stronger: “If she didn’t want us to smoke, why is she holding a light?”27 Thus the statue was a smoker, her torch a lighter, and her ideals “smoker’s rights”. The Cruise Ship ad said to “rock the boat” and Houses told smokers to “make yourself at home”—that is, ignore the rules. Perhaps the strongest proposed execution showed smokers picnicking on the moon. The copy read: “What happens when they’ve taken away all the places we used to enjoy Benson & Hedges? We’ll moon ‘em.”18 (“Mooning” is rudely exposing one’s buttocks.) It was never produced for use, as the copy was found to be “inconsistent with B & H imagery”.16
Philip Morris spokespeople repeatedly referred to humour as part of B&H’s brand equity (that is, one of the marketable “traits” for which the brand was known).28,29 The old ads made exaggerated claims for the product and deflated them at the same time. Their joke was on the smokers, who chose their “plight” and were willing to laugh at themselves. By contrast, although the smokers in the Creative Solutions ads chose their predicament by insisting on smoking, the ad copy made it clear that outside forces were telling smokers to “ship out”. In the face of these demands, the smokers found “a better place”.19 They neither acknowledged the “disadvantages” nor laughed at themselves. The joke was on those who restricted them.
This attitude is important because the “problem” posed was real. Smokers could no longer smoke in many places, and there was no way that any brand could “solve” that problem.13 The most obvious solution to the social stresses of smoking was for smokers to quit. The smokers in the ads, therefore, couldn’t allow the “problem” to bother them, which would bring quitting to mind.
The other “solution” was to reverse the trend of increasing restrictions. As concerned as Philip Morris was about sales, this policy agenda may have been more important. To advance it, Philip Morris used the B&H ads to promote its “Accommodation Program”. This was a very rare linkage of a product with a political message.
Begun on a trial basis in Pittsburgh in 1989, the Accommodation Program was supposed to give hospitality businesses—restaurants, hotels, bowling alleys, etc—a concrete alternative to banning smoking.30 The Program could be used by individual businesses, but more importantly, it provided a focus for organising to oppose local clean indoor air laws. Business owners could claim that such laws weren’t needed because they were already “accommodating” smokers and non-smokers. On a practical level, the Program consisted of signs and stickers indicating that the establishment had both smoking and non-smoking sections. How these were implemented was up to the individual business.31
The Accommodation Program symbol (a yin-yang with a lit cigarette in one half) was featured in all English language Creative Solutions ads, along with a toll-free number (the Spanish language versions did not feature the Accommodation Program). The text next to the symbol initially read, “Finally, a welcome sign for people who smoke”—a reference to Philip Morris’s hope that the symbol would replace the universal “no smoking” circle and slash. Later, perhaps in an effort to add plausibility to the claim that Philip Morris also cared about those represented by the non-smoking half of the icon, this was changed to “Finally, a welcome sign for both smokers and non-smokers”.
Philip Morris was aware of the political implications of the ads. As they were being developed, the city of San Francisco passed a law prohibiting smoking in most workplaces. Even before the law went into effect on 1 February 1994, Philip Morris decided to “eliminate all Region 5 [west of Colorado] geographies from launch plan...due to the legislative environment in California”.32–34 In addition, company executives were prepared to answer hypothetical questions that suggested that Philip Morris was “reduced to saying you understand how hated your customers have become” and asked whether their “customers are going to appreciate being reminded that smoking has made them pariahs”.35 The company line about whether there was a political goal to the campaign was that the brand sought to “spread a message of accommodation for smokers and non-smokers alike”.35
There were some problems with the Creative Solutions strategy. First, because B&H could not “solve” the problem it referenced, it was difficult for the brand to “own the solution”. Suzanne LeVan remarked that “we won’t know whether we can make B&H the proprietary owner of societal smoking empathy until we try”.13 Smokers said that the Creative Solutions campaign “reminds you that smokers have rights, too”, but saw B&H as “the sponsor of a general cigarette category ‘public service announcement’”.36
Another issue had to do with audience appeal. Cigarette companies analyse their customers in demographic terms (such as age, sex, and income) and “psychographic” categories that explain customers’ motivations for smoking or brand choice. The educated, older women who made up B&H’s core demographic tended to be “guilt-laden” about smoking.37 But the campaign appealed most to “proud” smokers36,38 who “appreciated seeing ‘a brand crusading for our rights’”.36 These smokers were less educated and poorer, and they did not smoke B&H.38 Thus, there was a conflict between the stated goal of appealing to current B&H smokers to stanch the outflow of quitters and switchers, and continuing with the Creative Solutions campaign, which resonated with a different market.
A third problem had to do with the campaign’s potential for longevity. One of B&H’s problems was its plethora of ad campaigns and lack of stable identity.39,40 Creative Solutions was supposed to “establish a long-term image for the brand”.41,42 In theory, Creative Solutions had that potential, as a 1989 marketing report suggested. A brand that “focuses on the restrictions” could actually benefit from stricter indoor air rules, since “As the restrictions become more intense–the toughening of the rules automatically promotes the image”.43
Thirteen different Creative Solutions ads were produced; more were proposed and rejected. Some of the rejects were insufficiently “aspirational” (middle class), such as an ad showing a bus.19,44,45 The Creative Solutions had to be “not immediately associated with segregationalism [sic].” Indeed, some respondents felt the height of all the smoking sections implied “isolation”, “punishment”, or being “stuck out of the way”.16 The best ads depicted “situations in which smoker ‘controls’ risk”.19 The ads also had to refer to a genuinely experienced restriction. Focus groups rejected executions that depicted situations in which they did not want or never expected to smoke. Among these were ads about elevators,46,47 shopping,48 and libraries.24,49 Use of situations in which smoking was not yet restricted was too threatening, suggesting that the climate for smokers would get worse. Ads rejected on this count depicted a piano bar,50 a stadium,51 a diner,49 and a hotel.51
Finally, although the “problems” had to have an element of realism, the “solutions” had to be fantastic or they risked descending into a prosaic suggestion for creating a smoking section.24 The other possibility for insufficiently imaginative “solutions” was that they would, given the element of risk present, become an occasion of fear. Some focus group respondents were made nervous by the “Train” execution because it seemed too “possible”.52
The campaign may also have overestimated the rebelliousness of smokers. Many smokers accepted smoke-free areas. For example, one respondent said: “I don’t even smoke in my own house anymore, so how can I mind when people ask me to smoke outside their house?”52 Smokers in a gay focus group agreed, saying that they preferred smoke-free flights and restaurant sections.53 Resistance to the ads was clearest among Hispanics, who believed that sociability and conformity were more important than asserting individual rights.54,55 These attitudes left Hispanic smokers unreceptive to the Creative Solutions ads. For these smokers, the headline copy was “a negative reminder of the currently imposed smoking restrictions” and the visuals were “viewed literally and thus seen as absurd, extreme, risky, or dangerous”. The smokers in the airplane ad, for instance, “were seen as pathetically desperate”.56
Philip Morris would have liked their customers to be less compliant, which led to miscalculations such as the “Moon” ad.19 The most striking example of the distance between the industry and the consumer perspective arose with the “Restaurant” execution. The original line on this ad was “Why are most restaurant smoking sections so unappetizing?”.57 But “some smokers did not ‘get’ the line, interpreting it as a critique”.47 The line was eventually changed to read, “The only thing allowed to smoke in some restaurants these days is the grill”. Smokers were not as unselfconsciously positive about smoking as Philip Morris was.
The ads failed to hit “a home run”58–61 for the brand. Although B&H experienced a slight upturn in early 1995, the campaign ended with an approximately 0.2 market share loss.8 Neither did the ads provide a long lasting brand identity. Philip Morris was initially upbeat about the ads’ effect on brand recognition,34 but in a July 1994 focus group B&H smokers could not describe the current ads. When shown the ads, participants recognised them, but didn’t associate them with B&H.24 The Creative Solutions campaign lasted only two years. By 1996 a completely new set of ads was running, featuring anthropomorphised cigarettes engaged in leisure activities.
The campaign may have had some success “reinforc[ing] messages re: desirability of accommodating smokers and non-smokers alike”.62 Media coverage of the ads was generally positive. The New York Times found the ads “whimsical”.63Brandweek’s story, though it noted the lethal nature of smoking, described the ads as “encouraging a defiant, social incorrectness”.64Superbrands called the ads “witty”65 and the Washington Post said they were “light-hearted mischief”.66 When USA Today asked ad agencies to pick the best ads of the year, Creative Solutions made the top 10.67 The positive slant was unusual at a time when media coverage in general was unsympathetic to the industry’s position on secondhand smoke.7 However, it is doubtful that the ads significantly increased public sympathy for smokers or opposition to clean indoor air laws.
The ads were moderately successful at promoting the Accommodation Program. Philip Morris tracked the number of calls to the Accommodation line that were prompted by the ads. In 1994, the year the campaign began, they received approximately 30 500 such calls.68 The next year they received 39 000, but in 1996 only 19 000 calls came in.69 The evidence from one focus group suggested that readers rarely noticed the symbol and phone number.24 Additionally, the primary market for the Accommodation Program was not consumers but business owners, so consumer advertising was a scattershot approach.
DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSIONS
In the USA in the early 1990s, Philip Morris was undergoing a crisis brought on by declining smoking rates, an increasingly strict regulatory environment, and growing social disapproval. In response to these pressures, top executives and the corporate affairs department developed a variety of plans, from spinning off the cigarette business70 to giving the company an image makeover,2 to fighting back even more fiercely.71,72 The Creative Solutions campaign demonstrates that advertising and marketing personnel responded to the political pressures as well.
The campaign illustrates the company’s concern about the changing social norms around smoking. Contrary to the often stated industry assertion that smoking is an “individual choice”, these ads and documents show that Philip Morris understood the importance of the social context for that “choice”. The ads reassured smokers—and potential smokers—that the social pressures they were feeling did not mean they had to quit. The ads told non-smokers that their quest for clean indoor air was unreasonable. Philip Morris was promoting the social proposition that smokers had a “right” to their habit.
Better understanding of the way tobacco companies use imagery may help activists counter a variety of advertising and promotional strategies from the industry. The campaign under discussion may be particularly interesting in this regard because of its explicit and implicit blending of commercial and sociopolitical messages. The Creative Solutions campaign may be an anomaly; on the other hand, it may be a slightly open window into a common but subtle industry practice. Examining cigarette ads for their sociopolitical implications may add to our knowledge of how the industry achieves its objectives, and what opposition is most effective.
The mythic function of advertising is “to provide a model of thought capable of overcoming contradiction generated by society”.73 The contradiction being addressed by the Creative Solutions ads was the changing role of smoking. Cigarette ads have to overcome their context to convince people that, even as the product’s social utility wanes and its dangers become more obvious, it is still worth it to smoke.
Most cigarette ads attempt this by ignoring the larger context. The people in the ads live in a world in which everyone smokes at social occasions and no one thinks about cancer, heart disease, or polluted air. The stated or implied pleasures of smoking—“taste,” “relaxation,” “fun”—in most ads have not significantly changed in the last 20 years. There is no problem in most cigarette ads—just “pleasure”.
The Creative Solutions ads, despite their surrealism, moved cigarette advertising much closer to the real world where smoking is no longer taken for granted. These ads attempted to grapple directly with the contradiction rather than ignoring it. The hopes of the brand team at Philip Morris were that smokers and would-be smokers would be relieved to see their problem acknowledged, and enjoy the fantasy solutions. But the ads were not up to the challenge; as visually appealing as they were, the reality of clean indoor air overcame the fantasy when smokers went to light up. The Creative Solutions ads and their evident failure speak volumes about the power of denormalisation to frustrate the industry’s goals.
What this paper adds
Previous studies have largely focused on quantitative analyses of advertising imagery. These studies provide important information about trends in advertising themes and content, enabling advocates to trace the use of cartoon characters, health related terminology, and the like. These studies have generally shown how the industry has succeeded in promoting its product (for example, children’s recognition of advertising icons).
Use of the tobacco industry documents to aid in the analysis of a particular campaign allows a richer, more nuanced interpretation of the ads. The documents reveal the motives, concerns, and difficulties of the company in its efforts to develop a message that would resonate with its customers. This campaign is particularly revealing, first, because it was a failure, and second, because it was a rare attempt to explicitly merge commercial and political agendas.
We would like to thank Naphtali Offen, Nathaniel Wander, Valerie Yerger, and Randy Wilson for their comments and suggestions. This study was funded by the National Cancer Institute, CA090789.
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