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Gauloises: to Oxford and the Middle East

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Until recently, Gauloises cigarettes held minuscule market share outside France and Francophone Africa. Made by Seita, the former French tobacco monopoly, their distinctive aroma was as uniquely French as the click of boules played by old men in village squares on a summer evening. But now its new owner, Altadis, the company formed from the merger of Seita and the Spanish monopoly, Tabacalera, seems determined to make it a serious competitor in the international marketplace.

In a centuries old nightmare of the British psyche come true, the French and Spanish are invading. Gauloises has been paying students to promote the brand in venues frequented by university students in Oxford, Cambridge, London, and Brighton. As everyone knows, tobacco companies do not want children to smoke, and strenuously assert that nothing could be further from their marketing people's minds. While many parents may think their university aged children still need a little protection, tobacco companies are allowed to make free with students, on the basis that the large majority go to university aged 18. That a few that are some months short of this magic age, when children suddenly become adults and are fair game, can be dealt with by chanting the glib, enticing mantra that promotions are “Only for smokers aged 18 years or over”.

One young woman recently described being recruited in a busy bar one Friday night in Oxford. She and fellow students were told that Gauloises had been pushed hard in London for two years, and sales had soared by 200%. The hand picked Oxford undergraduates were offered £50 (about $75) for two hours' work, and attended a briefing the following week. Several were not regular smokers, but £50 for simply “dressing glamorous” and mingling, being charming, buying drinks, offering cigarettes, and above all, smoking, seemed too good to resist. If appropriate, they were told, they could offer whole packs of cigarettes, and leave them lying around on unoccupied tables. The priority, it was made clear, was that Gauloises should be associated with youth and glamour.

The marketing plan envisaged “hostesses” going into a bar first, offering full packs of Gauloises, with the students following later at the “integration stage”, to give the illusion that, after the introductory week, students were now actually beginning to smoke Gauloises regularly. Such elaborate tricks to get highly fashion conscious, trend following young people to think that Gauloises is a fashion they cannot be seen to be without, are entirely legal in most countries.

Gauloises advertisement now appearing in Middle Eastern countries, carrying the slogan “Liberté Toujours” (Always Freedom).

Meanwhile, in Middle Eastern countries, where the vast majority of people are Muslim and not familiar with pin-up advertising, and where women traditionally do not touch tobacco, Gauloises ads have begun to appear showing a young woman, who could pass for a Middle-Eastern national, with the slogan “Liberté Toujours” (Always Freedom). It is not clear if this is an attempt to encourage Middle Eastern women to take up smoking, perhaps as a statement of wished for greater freedom, or whether the attractive model is more intended to lure young males to the brand. But what does seem certain is that Gauloises is going to be seen in many more countries, emulating the promotional techniques of its better known competitors. It can only augur badly for public health; apart from the advertising itself, yet another transnational company now stands among the enemy ranks, to fight target countries' governments that try to protect their citizens from the assault.