Design industry reaction to plain cigarette packaging

Following reports that the UK government is likely to ban branding on cigarette packaging later this year, The Drum speaks to branding experts from Pearlfisher, Design Bridge and Lewis Moberly to take a look at the impact of plain packaging.

Following a consultation by the Department of Health, it has been reported that the UK government is to legislate for plain cigarette packaging later this year, a move which would mandate all manufacturers to strip graphics and colour from their packets.According to an unnamed Whitehall source quoted in the Guardian, the legislation is expected to be announced during the Queen’s Speech in May, and is likely to follow the lead of Australia, where cigarettes are sold in uniform olive green packaging as of December 2012.Though not confirmed, the announcement of proposed legislation on plain packaging has prompted discussion among design and branding experts. What would such a move mean for the future of cigarette branding, and will the removal of branding make a difference to consumer habits?“As design consultants we would be the first to acknowledge that branding and packaging design influences consumers,” says Lewis Moberly’s strategic planning director Hilary Boys. “And pack design plays a particularly vital role in markets such as tobacco and alcohol where other media channels are limited or banned outright. So we understand why organisations like Cancer Research UK support proposals to introduce plain, standardised packaging of tobacco.“However, while such legislation is only in place in certain countries, we would also anticipate a huge increase in smuggling and counterfeit products and this is clearly undesirable.”Jonathan Ford, founding partner and chief creative officer, Pearlfisher, argues that the removal of colour shouldn’t be the main point of discussion, suggesting that legislation for standardised packaging provides an opportunity for design to create real change in people’s perception of smoking.“Brand colour is a huge signifier, point of recognition and loyalty cue for consumers but I don’t think colour – or the removal of it – should be the main concern or focus here. Neither should the fact that a ‘drab’ choice – as per Australia’s olive green – which has been shown to have negative connotations and not be attractive to certain audiences.”“Different colours have been shown to provoke different responses but so many other factors come into play. There’s standardising, making plain and stripping the brand – ‘unbranding’ – and then there’s the under or un–designed. “Regardless of what is introduced, we know that consumers will still buy cigarettes. But we also know that there is an opportunity here to use good design to create effective change. “And while Pearlfisher has an ethical policy not to work with tobacco brands, we feel strongly that this opportunity should not be missed. “Packaging is the still one of the key consumer touch points for brand messaging and various different design devices can manage how certain messaging and information is dialled up or down.“I’m not saying we should prescriptively copycat the Australian aesthetic approach but using different, hard-hitting and campaign’able messages about the myriad detriments to health – with a corresponding and personal photograph – is undeniably bold, attention-grabbing and powerful. It’s real and factual. It’s there in black and white.”Some have argued, however, that stripping back cigarette packaging not only removes the freedom for advertisers to communicate their brand, but also reduces the ability of consumers to make their own choices. Hugh Roberts, strategy partner at Design Bridge, argues consumers should fight against the plain packaging proposals.“Design makes the world a better place. Amongst other things, it helps us make the right choices. So, it seems obvious that by stripping design away from tobacco packaging we are helping consumers to make the right choice; 
the choice to give up smoking or to 
never start.“But perhaps, by signing up to plain packaging, we are doing something that is even more dangerous to 
society than smoking. We are reducing the freedom of consumers to make their own decisions. We are reducing the ability of people to be individual. 
We are forgetting that consumers are not rational beings, that sometimes we want to make an emotional choice. A choice that is irrational, selfish, stupid – but still makes us happy.“Plain packaging feels like an 
entirely rational thing to do, but consumers are not robots and we should fight against it.”

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