Article Text

How the industry is marketing menthol cigarettes: the audience, the message and the medium
  1. Amanda Richardson1,2,
  2. Ollie Ganz1,
  3. Jennifer Pearson2,3,
  4. Nathalie Celcis1,
  5. Donna Vallone1,2,
  6. Andrea C Villanti2,3
  1. 1Department of Research and Evaluation, Legacy, Washington DC, USA
  2. 2Department of Health, Behavior, and Society, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, MD, USA
  3. 3Schroeder Institute for Tobacco Research and Policy Studies, Legacy, Washington DC, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr Amanda Richardson, 2582 Holly Manor Drive, Falls Church, VA 22043, USA; amanda{at}


Background Despite declines in overall US cigarette consumption, the menthol cigarette market share has increased in recent years. Advertising contributes to menthol initiation and use, but little has been done to characterise menthol cigarette advertising outside of the point of sale.

Methods Two full-service advertising firms were used to develop a library of menthol cigarette advertisements (ads) over a 9-month period (June 2012–February 2013) in the USA. The volume of ads, media channel (direct mail, print, online, email), estimated spend and households reached was summarised overall and by brand in 2013. Direct mail, email and print ads were coded for content and the target audience of print publications was examined.

Results Over the study period, 205 menthol cigarette ads were identified with estimated expenditures exceeding US$31 million, with 70% spent on direct mail ads. Over 90% of ads promoted Camel, Marlboro and Newport menthol cigarettes. A majority (87%) of direct mail ads contained coupons or other incentives known to appeal to price-sensitive customers. Only two brands’ print ads appeared during this period: Newport ads focused on themes of sociability and sexuality, and were placed in magazines targeting African-Americans and younger consumers; American Spirit print ads were placed in general interest magazines and predominantly stressed the ‘natural’ aspects of their brand.

Discussion The tobacco industry continues to spend millions of dollars promoting menthol cigarettes through channels that preferentially target vulnerable subgroups, such as African-Americans and younger consumers. Public health campaigns to educate and combat the influence of menthol advertising are needed.

  • Advertising and Promotion
  • Media
  • Tobacco industry
  • Surveillance and monitoring

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Menthol cigarette market share in the USA is increasing.1 According to recent data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 35% of current smokers use menthol cigarettes and rates are highest among youth aged 12–17 (57%), young adults aged 18–25 (45%) and African-Americans (88%).2 Use of Camel and Marlboro menthol cigarettes increased from 2004–2006 to 2008–2010, especially among adolescents and young adults, while use of Newport menthol cigarettes increased among adults.2 Evidence reviews from the FDA's Tobacco Product Scientific Advisory Committee (TPSAC) and Center for Tobacco Products (CTP) have concluded that menthol flavouring in cigarettes is likely associated with youth smoking and initiation; increased nicotine dependence in young smokers; and decreased smoking cessation in adult smokers, particularly African-Americans.3–5

The tobacco industry spends over US$8.4 billion/year marketing cigarettes,6 which is nearly double the US$4.6 billion that the entire fast food industry spent in 2012 advertising their products.7 The significant allocation of resources to cigarette advertising has paid off, as it has been shown to increase both initiation8–10 and continued use11 ,12 of tobacco. There is considerable evidence of advertising selectively targeting youth and African-Americans,13–15 not only through placement of advertisements (ads) but also with the inclusion of price discounts and other incentives as price strongly influences product purchase.16 ,17 Targeted marketing of menthol cigarettes has been documented in studies derived from tobacco industry documents,18–21 as well as empirical studies. A recent study conducted among neighbourhoods within a half-mile of California high schools found that with every 10% increase in the proportion of African-American students, menthol cigarette advertising increased by 5.9%, Newport promotions were 50% higher, and the cost of Newport was 12 cents lower.22 Another study in Washington DC reported that the availability, presence of exterior marketing and lower price of Lorillard brands, especially Newport, was associated with higher concentrations of African-American residents in a block group.23 Targeted marketing may also underlie research findings that African-American youth were more likely than youth of other races to recognise Newport cigarettes and initiate smoking, even after adjusting for known risk factors.24

Despite the impact of advertising on the initiation of tobacco products and the recent rise of menthol cigarette market share, little has been done to monitor and characterise menthol cigarette advertising outside of the point of sale environment. This study identifies and characterises direct mail, print, online, email menthol cigarette ads in the USA from June 2012 through February 2013, using two comprehensive advertising surveillance services.


Advertisement surveillance services

Ads for menthol cigarettes were identified through two full-service advertising services—Competitrack and Mintel Comperemedia (Mintel)—which together provide comprehensive coverage of US ads and are considered top firms for advertising surveillance in the country. Competitrack monitors 22 media sources, including those used in this study: magazines, newspapers, online display and online video. Competitrack's online portal captures the ad as it is presented to the consumer and associated metadata including: (1) the media channel (eg, print, online); (2) channel-specific details (eg, magazine title and issue date); (3) the first-run and last-run date and total number of unique ad occurrences; (4) first market in which the ad was aired/printed and whether the ad was targeted to business or consumer target market; (5) estimated dollar amount spent on placement of ads. It is important to note that online ad surveillance by Competitrack is not comprehensive and differs for ‘online video’ versus ‘online banner’ ads. Surveillance of ‘online video’ ads were conducted across approximately 100 of the most popular websites as determined by the number of site visits. Surveillance of ‘online banner’ ads was conducted among approximately 2500 English language websites chosen based on the number of site visits and popularity of the genre; however, only 647 of these websites were monitored for ad spending. Mintel tracks direct mail and opt-in email ads. A prescreened sample consisting of approximately 67 000 households participated in direct mail collection and an additional email panel of approximately 1300 individuals auto-forward their emails to Mintel daily. The sample reflects key characteristics of the US population, including household composition, age and education level of the head of household, geographic region, market size and total household income. Similar to Competitrack, Mintel captures the ad image and associated metadata including: (1) media channel (email or direct mail); (2) first-seen and last-seen dates; (3) estimated dollar amount spent on the ad; and (4) estimated direct mail volume.

Identification of menthol cigarette advertisements

Ads were collected through the online portal in Competitrack by specifying the following criteria: (1) product was specified as menthol cigarettes; (2) ad appeared in the USA and (3) ad appeared to the public between 1 June 2012 and 28 February 2013. This time period was chosen because June 2012 reflects the first period during which tobacco ads were collected through Competitrack and Mintel as part of Legacy's subscription (ie, tobacco ads were not systematically collected by Competitrack or Mintel prior to this period) and the study began in March 2013. There were no further restrictions: ads could occur through any media channel, with any theme and could be new (‘breaking’) or existing ads. We conducted searches by product name (eg, menthol cigarettes) and brand (eg, Camel). To ensure inclusion of all relevant ads in the database, we also searched for all cigarette ads during that time and removed ads that did not feature menthol cigarettes.

In Mintel, the specifications were as follows: (1) the tobacco category was specified as menthol cigarettes and (2) ads must have been received via mail or email by the panelists between 1 June 2012 and 28 February 2013. There were no further specifications; ‘bundling’(ie, multiple ads in one mailing) of ads was allowed and email and direct mail formats were allowed. As with Competitrack, separate searches were done by specifying specific known menthol cigarette brands (eg, Camel) to ensure that the search was comprehensive.

Ads were divided into two categories: primary and secondary ads. Ads that specifically focused on promoting menthol cigarettes were called ‘primary ads’. Ads were denoted as ’secondary’ if they promoted non-menthol cigarettes but either featured a textual reference to the availability of the cigarette in menthol flavour or showed a picture of the menthol brand somewhere in the ad. Ads targeting businesses, rather than consumers, were excluded. Using this method, we identified 205 unique primary ads and 67 unique secondary ads for menthol cigarettes that ran between 1 June 2012 and 28 February 2013. Ads were coded as unique (ie, distinct) by Competitrack and Mintel; ads that differed in any way were considered unique even if that difference were small (eg, difference in the text of the warning label).

Analysis of menthol advertisements

Metadata, including estimated money spent on advertising placement, was summarised for all menthol ads and additional analyses were conducted by (1) PHD Worldwide, a media agency specialising in communications and channel planning, to determine the target audience for print ads (not available for other channels) and (2) two independent coders who collected detailed information on the content of each ad using a structured coding form adapted from prior analysis of smokeless tobacco magazine ads25 and non-combustible tobacco product ads,26 third coder resolved differences when necessary. Agreement between initial two coders was 89%. A target audience determination was made for print publications only. A demographic subgroup was considered a target if the readership exceeded the representation of these groups, according to US census data, by at least 10%. This was chosen as a cut-off point after initial analysis of the data indicated either very little deviation from the census estimate or those exceeding a 10% difference and to allow for a reasonable but not excessive deviation. Additional detail on the methods used to analsze the metadata, target audience and content of the menthol ads is provided in online supplementary methods appendix.


We identified 205 unique ads that primarily advertised menthol that ran between 1 June 2012 and 28 February 2013 (table 1). An additional 67 ads for regular non-menthol cigarettes were identified that featured a secondary ad for menthol cigarettes. Primary advertisers included Camel (Menthol and Camel Crush; n=87 unique ads, 42.4%), Newport (n=65 unique ads; 31.7%), Marlboro (n=35 unique ads, 17.1%), Pall Mall (n=9 unique ads, 4.4%), L&M (n=5 unique ads, 2.4%) and American Spirit (n=4 unique ads, 1.9%). Secondary advertisers also included Wave Cigarettes (n=3, 4.5%).

Table 1

Characteristics of menthol cigarette ads from 1 June 2012 to 28 February 2013

Over US$31 million was spent on primary menthol ads, with the majority (70%) spent on direct mail advertising (US$22 149 388). An estimated 38 052 642 direct mail menthol ad packets were sent out during the study period, with Camel (44.6%), Newport (31.0%) and Marlboro (19.6%) representing the predominant brands advertised. As well, almost all ‘secondary ads’ for menthol cigarettes were sent through direct mail. Print represented the second highest source of expenditures; however only Newport (n=105 insertions in print publications; US$7 638 300) and American Spirit (n=30; US$1 758 600) advertised through this channel. Online ads were the third highest source of advertising expenditures, and only two online ads were identified, both for Newport and costing only US$125 to place online by the company. Although 11 email ads were identified, Mintel does not provide expenditure data for email ads.

Analysis of primary menthol cigarette ads sent through direct mail and email showed that almost all ads directed the recipient to the brand's website, and 81.8% featured coupons for tobacco products (inclusive of menthol) (table 2) with values ranging from 50 cents off a pack to US$4 off a carton. Direct mail and email ads differed in that there were far fewer unique email ads (n=9) versus unique direct mail ads (n=163) and the majority of email ads (n=7) were for Marlboro menthol cigarettes. In contrast, direct mail ads featured a greater variety of brands (7 brands). Ads were similar with regards to content and messaging and target individuals who have opted in to receive information from the brands; of course email ads could directly link consumers to a tobacco company's product landing page, whereas direct mail ads could only feature the website address. Six of the eight brands that advertised through the mail (direct mail or email) featured sweepstakes, and among those brands, 18–31% of their ads featured sweepstakes. Additionally, roughly 63% of these sweepstakes offers directing respondents to the brand's website and 18% requiring either registration on the brand's website or a postcard to be filled out with information on the usual brand smoked, the recipient's birthday, email address, phone number and signature.

Table 2

Features of direct mail and email advertisements for menthol cigarette ads from 1 June 2012 to 28 February 2013

Print ads were the second most common form of menthol cigarette advertising, with 32 unique ads featured in 135 placements and US$9 397 026 spent in the 9-month study period. Newport and American Spirit were the only two brands advertised through print during the study period. Newport constituted the majority of ads (n=29 unique ads, 28 of which were print) and featured themes of sociability and sexuality ( table 3). Newport ads always featured people, mainly in groups of mixed race/ethnicity and were estimated by coders to be in their 20s and 30s. Common taglines were ‘Newport Pleasure!’ or just ‘Pleasure!’ Ads for American Spirit (n=4 unique ads), on the other hand, featured no people and instead focused on messages of harm reduction and individuality. For example, one ad featured a green plant with a placard inserted into the soil that read ‘Mint’ and the saying ‘Menthol 100% additive-free tobacco’. The other three ads stressed that, ‘We use premium whole leaf, natural tobacco and a filter containing granules infused with natural menthol…’ (words bolded here in large bold font on the ad). Notably, three of the four American Spirit print ads also contained a coupon for two packs of American Spirit for US$2, which had to be redeemed with a promo code entered either on the website or over the telephone. All print ads for Newport and American Spirit contained their website address.

Table 3

Characteristics of menthol cigarette print ads 1 June 2012–28 February 2013

The majority of American Spirit print ads (3 of 4 or 75%) ran only once in a given publication during the study period. In contrast, Newport advertising was more prolific, with the number of ad insertions per print publication ranging from 1 to 15, with a mean number of 4.5 ads. For example, there were a total of 15 Newport ads in National Enquirer; 1 ad was featured in each one of 15 issues of the magazine over the study period. A breakdown of the magazines in which ads were run and the demographics of the readers are displayed in table 4. American Spirit ads appeared in a variety of general interest magazines, many of which appeal specifically to men and/or younger consumers, 18–24 years of age. Only two ads appear in magazines preferentially targeting African-Americans, the readership of which comprised a higher percentage of men as opposed to women.

Table 4

Readership of publications advertising menthol cigarettes from 1 June 2012 to 28 February 2013

The readership of print publications that featured Newport ads differed from that of publications that featured American Spirit ads. Of the 20 magazines in which Newport ads were placed the readership of six print publications were comprised of more than 10% African-Americans with most specifically targeting African-American women (Ebony, Essence, National Enquirer, Jet). ESPN Magazine also has a readership consisting of relatively high levels of African-American men and young adults. The two ads that promoted the ‘Newport Pleasure Payday Contest’ ran in four magazines, three of which targeted African-Americans (Jet, National Enquirer, TV Guide) and the fourth targeting young adult women (InTouch Weekly). Furthermore, the majority of Newport print ads (61%) featured at least one African-American.


To the best our knowledge, this is the first study to conduct surveillance of all menthol cigarette advertising in direct mail, email, print and online in the USA. Over 9 months spanning June 2012 through February 2013, the tobacco industry produced 205 primary ads and spent over US$31 million on menthol cigarette ads. Almost half of this was spent advertising Newport (US$14.0 million) with most of the remainder spent on Camel (US$10.2 million) and Marlboro (US$4.3 million) menthol cigarette ads. Given that approximately US$74 million was spent on magazine, direct mail and internet advertising for cigarettes throughout the entire year of 2011,6 this 9-month expenditure of US$31 million suggests that about half, if not more, dollars are spent advertising menthol cigarettes as compared to regular cigarettes. Despite numerous brands on the market, 91% of ads promoted the top-selling brands of Newport, Camel and Marlboro menthol cigarettes.

Seventy per cent of menthol cigarette advertising dollars were spent on direct mailings. This approach targets people who have expressed some interest in the products through, for example, signing up on the website or registering to receive promotions at an event, and is more consistent with building brand loyalty than attracting new users. The inclusion of coupons and other incentives, coupled with attempts to drive consumers to the website, serve to function to engage their customer base. This may be particularly true with sweepstakes, which require the recipient to give up personal information that can be used to track and advertise directly to that individual. Research has shown that cigarette promotional offers reach most industry-targeted groups, in particular young adults and price-sensitive customers.27 Direct mail ads may also be seen by youth in the household who do not smoke, promote cravings in smokers, and/or make it harder for smokers to quit or stay quit. Recapturing young adult quitters in particular has been shown to be a strategy of the industry.28

Only two online ads were identified, and the amount spent on the online ads was almost negligible. This could be due to that fact that online advertising does not have the same reach as other mediums and so is priced cheaper. Alternatively, the low spend may be a reflection of the advertising approach; for example, a ‘cost/per click’ mechanism only costs the company if a person clicks on the ad. For an obscure website (eg, Wisconsin Farmer), the advertising might result in so few clicks that the spend remains low. Finally, a recent report conducted by Legacy found that estimates on online advertising spend can vary from actual spend by as much as 70%,29 which means that any estimates generated from this study, or others like it, need to be considered with caution. However, costs for online advertising are typically lower than for print advertising, which could represent a mechanism the industry could exploit to cheaply promote their products.

During the study period, Newport and American Spirit were the only two brands that advertised in print publications. American Spirit print ads focused on communicating the ‘natural’ aspect of their product, a message which may appeal to those who are health-conscious and concerned with the environment.30 ,31 Newport ads focused mainly on themes of sociability and sexuality and were featured in print publications targeting African-Americans and young adults, 18–24 years of age. Although data on the print publication audience under 18 years of age was not conducted as part of this study, a separate analysis conducted by GfK MRI found that teen readership was particularly high for certain magazines in which Newport ads were run, including Entertainment Weekly (teen audience of 897 000), ESPN Magazine (teen audience of 2 002 000) InStyle (teen audience of 744 000) and People (teen audience of 3 163 000).32 The placement of Newport ads in publications preferentially read by African-Americans and young consumers may be one reason that Newport is the most popular brand among African-American smokers of all ages (52.6–81.2%), is used by 25.3% of youth smokers (aged 12–17) and 20.1% of young adult smokers (18–25 years)2 and is one of the top two brands among adolescent smokers.33 This is consistent with research documenting the industry's efforts to target African-Americans and youth in menthol cigarette marketing,13–15 ,19 by, for example, placing a greater quantity of interior and exterior promotional signs in so-called ‘focus communities,’ areas in which the population is predominantly African-Americans and of low socioeconomic status.22 ,34–37

Following the completion of data collection in the current study, print advertising for Camel cigarettes was launched after a 5-year hiatus.38 Camel Crush cigarettes, which contain a breakable menthol capsule in the filter, have been featured in at least 24 magazines published by Time Inc, Conde Nast and Wenner Media since this study ended.38 Camel menthol has been growing in popularity among younger consumers.2 An industrial study recently found as part of their 10-year brand-specific study of youth smokers that Camel has gained over 20% market share among youth, 12–17 years of age, and over 60% among young adults, 18–25 years of age.39 Unlike direct mail ads, print ads target a broad population consisting of current tobacco users and non-users. By advertising in print, Camel menthol is positioned to potentially extend their consumer base, particularly among younger consumers. Other menthol cigarette brands not currently advertising in print, particularly those gaining traction in youth and young adults, may also adopt this marketing approach.

There are several limitations to this study. First, the advertising surveillance services used in this study do not guarantee identification of all ads during a specified time period. This is particularly a weakness with regard to online video ads as the service only tracks approximately 100 of the most popular websites. However, approximately 2500 websites are tracked for online banner ads. Furthermore, these services do not capture ads promoted through brand websites or any other mechanism (eg, YouTube video, social network mention, celebrity endorsement). Therefore, this study underestimates the total amount of menthol cigarette advertising and promotion online. Second, despite our efforts to capture all relevant information, thematic coding of the ads, while consistent with other studies,25 may have missed meaningful promotional tactics. Third, thematic categorisations of ads was restricted to print ads for several reasons, including the lack of prior methodology in this area and the difficulty in considering how to approach categorisation given the different characteristics of direct mail and online ads (ie, its use mainly for distribution of coupons or driving consumers to a brand's website). Finally, this study was intended to monitor and characterise menthol cigarette advertising occurring during a specified time period in 2012–2013 through direct mail, email, online and print. It does not include ads at the point of sale, which account for the highest proportion of advertising spending relative to print, online and direct mail.6 The importance of promotional channels other than the point of sale, however, is critical in assessing the overall impact of advertising on how consumers think about and use menthol cigarettes.

As the FDA's CTP considers potential regulatory actions regarding the science related to menthol cigarettes—it will be critical to consider how advertising of menthol cigarettes influences individuals’ tobacco use trajectory. This is particularly important for high-risk groups such as minorities and youth/young adults, the same populations that are more heavily targeted by the industry. Comprehensive surveillance of all menthol cigarette advertising, including direct mail, email, print, online and point of sale, will be necessary40 as well as the development of methods to capture not only the level of potential exposure to such advertising, but the levels of ad awareness and receptivity in the short-term and long-term.41 Improved surveillance of tobacco marketing practices can help inform public education efforts to effectively address the harms associated with menthol cigarette use and aid in regulatory decision-making.

What this paper adds

  • This study leverages a unique service—comprehensive surveillance services of advertising firms—to supply data on the brand, volume, media channel and estimated money spent on print, online, email and direct mail menthol cigarette advertising in the USA during a specified time point.

  • By using information gained from media companies on the intended audience of media channels, this study offers a glimpse into the demographic subgroups of the population that the tobacco industry is trying to reach through its advertising methods.

  • This study supports research that details the different marketing tactics of unique brands of menthol cigarettes.


Supplementary materials

  • Supplementary Data

    This web only file has been produced by the BMJ Publishing Group from an electronic file supplied by the author(s) and has not been edited for content.

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  • Contributors AR conceived the idea, drew up the analytic plan, oversaw data collection, interpreted results and wrote the manuscript. OG did the data collection, helped with writing the text, formatting and references. JP helped with the data collection and analysis and manuscript review. NC helped with the data collection and analysis. DV provided input on the manuscript drafts. AV helped with study design, result interpretation and writing of the manuscript.

  • Funding Legacy (internal funding).

  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data sharing statement No unpublished data for this study as it involved the collection of advertisements for menthol cigarettes—all data which was included in this study.