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As we know, one of the basic principles of tobacco promotion is to address the subconscious fears of the target audience: smokers, and potential “starters”, as tobacco companies so cynically refer to our children. Some of these fears are rather banal—for example, that our breath, hair and clothes will smell bad if we smoke—and can be addressed by the association of cigarettes with concepts diametrically opposite on any scale of values, such as fresh mountain air and fragrant, beautiful models. Other fears, of course, are about the much more serious health problems caused by smoking, hence the value to tobacco manufacturers of associating smoking with sports and other tough, physical activities at which only fit and healthy people can excel.
But how else can we be reassured about well founded fear? Most non-smokers are fearful about the risks of smoking, and timid about trying it, and at some level almost all smokers are deeply afraid of the consequences of their habit, and about continuing to ignore the overwhelming medical, economic, and social pressures to quit. One obvious way for tobacco companies to address such fears is to link smoking with bravery, a concept that must have been discussed between the tobacco industry and government health officials in several countries, as it has been specifically proscribed in some of the discredited “voluntary agreements” signed by numerous foolish or naive governments in the past.
In the UK, for example, the agreement regulating print and billboard tobacco advertising in the 1980s stated that advertisements should not suggest that smoking was “a manifestation of courage or daring”. Of course, the whole point about these schemes is that the tobacco companies only agree to what they know they can easily circumvent by other means; thus Mr Aleardo Buzzi, the PM executive responsible for Marlboro's Formula 1 motor racing operations, told an advertising journal in 1983: “What we wanted was to promote a particular image of adventure, of courage, of virility.”
In South Africa, Rembrandt, now subsumed into BAT, used a surf rescue helicopter with a huge assortment of ground backup vehicles, all plastered with its John Rolfe cigarette brand identifiers, to capture the attention of child-rich crowds at seaside holiday resorts, until it was grounded by the country's new tobacco control legislation (
). Earlier, Rothmans had used a similar device in New Zealand for its Winfield brand. Both rescue helicopters exploited a perfect blend of bravery, life saving, and excitement, achieving three major tobacco advertising deceptions simultaneously.
For the last decade in India, PM's Red and White cigarette brand has pulled no punches in an audacious, all bravery promotional scheme. Red and White cigarette ads disguised as advertisements for a national bravery award last year boasted that since 1990, the awards scheme “has honoured the true heroes of society. Ordinary citizens who have performed extraordinary deeds of physical courage and supreme selflessness.” They went on to say that past winners included “saviours of people's lives and property. And organisations battling social evils such as dowry, child marriage and environmental pollution.” The ads ended with an appeal for nominations (with a coy implication that people might consider nominating themselves) in two categories: physical bravery, and social acts of courage. Prizes ranged from a bronze medal plus around US$100 to a gold medal and US$300.
To complete the association of the brand with bravery, PM ensures that publicity for the programme positions the brand and the company as brave, too, by championing some of the most controversial and stubbornly tenacious remnants of India's ancient culture. Dowry payments made by parents under contracts for the marriage of their daughters have long plunged some of the very poorest families into apparently impossible, never ending debt or servitude. Some arch traditionalists and small time money lenders must resist the idea of ending the system as vehemently as PM resists an end to tobacco promotion.
Yet this is consistent with PM's careful casting of itself as the good guy in similar social struggles all over the world—for example, as benefactor to groups fighting hunger and poverty, HIV, and the deprivation of minorities. Surely its public relations team must already be drafting plans to sponsor women's emancipation programmes in post-war Afghanistan?