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It is strangely reassuring how even the biggest tobacco companies, able to hire the most sophisticated advertising and marketing skills in the world, continue to make mistakes. Philip Morris (PM) started the year with a comforting reminder of how even the biggest of all can make blunders, when it launched the latest round of ads for Virginia Slims.
This is the brand aimed at “young adult female smokers”, as its advertisers would probably say, or girls, as cynical health experts might prefer to describe the target audience. Virginia Slims advertisements have irritated feminists and health advocates alike since the earliest ads informed women, whom they addressed as “Baby”, that they had “come a long way”. Whereas it had been taboo for their mothers' generation to smoke, they suggested, it was now OK to smoke, and a symbol of their new, hard won independence. After a drubbing from leaders of the women's movement, whose concern at that time was mainly about being patronised as “Baby”, the company dropped the offending B word and just told women they had come “a long, long way”.
More recently, there was the “Find Your Voice” campaign, featuring beautiful women from different cultures and countries (Tobacco Control2000;9:134). However, that was discontinued after PM's chief executive, Michael Szymanczyk, was questioned about the ads, presumably none too comfortably, during the historic Engle trial in Florida, which resulted in record damages against the industry.
In the latest ad campaign, PM urges women to visualise a physiologically challenging example of claiming power back from men: “See yourself as a king”. Apart from being offensive, the implied suggestion that a king is superior to a queen may be as baffling to hundreds of millions of British Commonwealth citizens as it would have been to the female pharaoh from ancient Egypt who is portrayed in the ad. But sex aside, the clearly intended associations of power, control, and the best things in life have caused angry critics to contrast the ad with PM's elaborate and expensive attempts to portray itself as reformed and socially responsible. Nowadays feminists are among the first to spot how tobacco companies exploit women, and they have given PM a double beating: not only has it shown extraordinary political incorrectness, but once again has demonstrated the contempt with which it views women's health.
However, perhaps the company has inadvertently taken its new public relations position to the ultimate extreme, subtly admitting the unparalleled dangers of its products. After all, “Find your voice” could have been a slogan specially designed to engage the dark, subconscious fears of young women who saw the powerful publicity generated by Janet Sackman, the former Lucky Strike model whose laryngectomy was necessitated from consuming the brand she once promoted. As for the “See yourself as a King” ads, what most people know about ancient Egypt's pharaohs is almost entirely associated with their tombs, which so often received their occupants at a young age. And then there was King George VI, father of the present head of state of America's old colonial ruler and now ally, the UK. Having smoked from the age of 14, he had a cancerous lung removed in his early 50s, and died of heart disease aged 56. Maybe PM wants young women to see themselves as that king?
All articles written by David Simpson unless otherwise attributed. Ideas and items for News Analysis should be sent to David Simpson at the address given on the inside front cover.