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When President Clinton arrived in Dakar, Senegal on 31 March 1998, on an exuberant tour to promote trade and goodwill in West Africa, he probably didn’t realise that another American icon had already beaten him to the sale.
The “Marlboro Man” had long since established himself as the number one American businessman in town (see Tobacco Control 1997;6:243–5). Months before Clinton’s arrival, Philip Morris had no qualms about cashing in on Senegalese youth’s fascination with the United States. “Come to Marlboro Country”, invited large billboards at every turn. “America, here I come!”, exclaimed a poster for L & M, Marlboro’s sister brand, sporting a trendy, young, white couple sharing a smoke beside a pay ’phone before they zip off to New York City on their shiny new motorcycle. “Win a trip to the US with L & M”, it enticingly announced to passers by.
Philip Morris even employed Senegal’s best loved wrestler, Mohamed “Tyson” Ndao (namesake of the American boxer Mike), often seen wearing an American flag during his trademark victory dance, to plug their addictive sticks. Last autumn, a television advertisement showed a close up of Tyson giving the “thumbs up” sign as the camera panned “m-a-r-l-b-o-r-o”.
Clinton and his entourage, including 250 journalists, saw none of the starred and striped tobacco hype. Perhaps fearful that the president, on a rare step outside Air Force One, would catch a glimpse of his cowboy kinsman and cry “Foul play!”, Philip Morris had taken acute pains to cover the “evidence”, strategically banishing all their advertising: radio, posters, and billboards.
Philip Morris had good reason to be afraid. Proposed tobacco legislation in the United States at the time was calling for strict international tobacco control measures which would bar government funds from being used to promote American tobacco overseas; further, it called for increased funding for overseas tobacco control via international agencies such as the World Health Organisation, UNICEF and through an American-sponsored technical assistance body, and a code of conduct for American tobacco companies abroad comparable to domestic anti-tobacco laws; and a crack down on tobacco smuggling.
Furthermore, the US State Department had issued a new directive on international tobacco policy less than two months earlier, encouraging American embassies to “assist and promote tobacco-control efforts in host countries”.
According to one local radio station technician with a friend working for Marlboro, Philip Morris pulled all their radio advertisements during the week coinciding with the president’s and first lady’s visit. Local store owners in the Grand Dakar neighbourhood confirmed that Philip Morris representatives had paid a visit to remove posters before the Clintons’ arrival. The explanation given to one store owner was that the “mayor of Dakar has put a tax on posters”. Funny timing, and since when has Marlboro been so “poor”?
With Clinton gone, Philip Morris began repainting whole storefronts in red and white, a strategy often used by other products to dominate and eliminate competing advertising. And the Western cowboy’s omnipresence was again as strong as ever. Sexily clad Marlboro women hand out free cigarettes in popular nightclubs. Toddlers in rural villages sport “Marlboro” outfits. And Dakar schoolchildren were spotted carrying their books in red and white “Marlboro” backpacks. Philip Morris’ great April Fool’s Joke in Senegal was over.
“If Americans know cigarettes kill people, how come they let ‘Marlboro’ promote them in Africa?” a young Senegalese man, sharing a smoke with his buddies, asked in genuine wonder. Good question. It is at the very heart of the international tobacco hypocrisy that Philip Morris wishes to cover up.
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.