Stubbed out: is this the last gasp for cigarette branding?

Andrew Boulton is a copywriter with a decade of scribbling experience at places like Egg the online bank, some top agencies in the Midlands and once for a man who carved dolphins out of cheese.

He was nominated for the Professional Publishers Association Award for Business Media Columnist of the Year despite having little or no grasp of the semi colon. He has decent hair but a disappointing beard. You can follow him on Twitter @Boultini.

When my dear old granddad was sent off at the age of 17 to go fight a war, he was handed a pack of cigarettes by a senior officer and told, “go on son, you’re fighting for your country.”

As advertising slogans go, that is fairly compelling. ‘Just do it’ pretty much pales in comparison, unless of course the ‘it’ one must ‘just do’ is vanquishing Hitler. Which it isn’t.

But the days where cigarettes could be thrust into a young man’s hand, and the frankly bizarre reassurances that have been offered as incitement to smoke, are gasping and wheezing like a 60-a-dayer on a treadmill.

This week has seen a landmark health policy in Australia in which all cigarette packets have been stripped of their branding. They now universally appear in dark green packaging with bold and graphic images of smoking related illnesses and doom-laden health messages.

As a non-smoker myself, I say ‘hurrah’. But then I wonder what would happen if all of a sudden, scientists discovered that Guinness gives you typhoid. Or a Gregg’s Steak Bake can make your head fall off.

What then if the things that I love that are terribly bad for me suddenly became subject to legislation that stripped them of all their brand frippery, banned them from advertising in any shape or form and slapped dirty great labels on the front of the pack showing some poor headless fellow?

In all honestly, I wouldn’t give a monkeys. I have already bought into those products, I am aware of them and my brand loyalty has already been firmly established. I believe that my brand affinity wouldn’t disintegrate merely because the brand elements I have come to recognise have been removed – even if that means I have to navigate pictures of a decapitated scallywag in order to tuck into my pastry based treat.

I imagine the Australian cigarette strategy will play out in much the same way. Committed smokers wouldn’t care if their cigarettes were wrapped in a case of dried camel spit, it’s the product inside that they are committed too.

Where I do suspect it will be successful is in discouraging new smokers. Everyone I know who smokes has told me that for the first few months of smoking it is an utterly repellent and often nauseating ordeal. But after a certain length of time it becomes enjoyable and then addictive. I experienced a similar process with watching Hollyoaks – repelled, tolerant and finally fanatical.

The reason young people begin to smoke is because, quite frankly, it has been made to look very cool for a very long time. Lee Marvin smokes, Steve McQueen smokes, Bruce Willis smokes so much throughout the Die Hard films it’s a wonder he’s got the lung capacity to shoot dead quite so many villains.

But just as significantly, the brands themselves are cool. Marlboro packs were bold and assertive and embodied a brand that had gone to extraordinary lengths to establish themselves as the very definition of masculinity. To be seen with a packet of Marlboro’s told people that you were a cowboy, a rogue, a Steve McQueen. Unless, of course, you were seen with a pack of Marlboro menthols, that told people you were an arse crack.

So what precisely does a generic green packet, emblazoned with the word’s ‘SMOKING KILLS’ and a large picture of yellowing teeth or blackened lungs, say about you? Not good things I’d imagine.

But for all the smoking related deaths this campaign may well avert there is one (albeit far less consequential) death it virtually assures, and that is the final blow to cigarette branding and marketing. If, as is hoped, the Australian approach is taken up in other countries throughout the world, then tobacco companies will have no branding platform left at all.

As a marketing person myself I have to admire the creativity, wit and imagination of some cigarette marketing that has, quite rightly, had to jump through increasingly more and more hoops. Some excellent work has been produced and, when examined in isolation of the behaviour it was encouraging, will be regarded with interest and admiration within the industry for a very long time.

At the same time, I think I would have found it very hard to reconcile working on a tobacco campaign myself. I would, for example, be unwilling to write a campaign that encouraged people to buy harpoons with the express purpose of jamming them into their own lungs, and I feel cigarettes, admittedly in a far less ‘stabby’ way, can achieve much the same end.

Now I’m off to tuck into a Gregg’s Steak Bake. Don’t judge me friends, I’m fighting for my country.


Andrew Boulton is a copywriter at the Together Agency. If his head falls off, he has no one to blame but himself.

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