Full steam ahead: The e-cigarette market is returning cigarette advertising to TV screens
It’s almost 50 years since cigarette advertising was banned from British TV, and two decades since loose tobacco and cigar ads faced a similar fate. Last month however British American Tobacco returned to our screens as we start to see the world’s biggest tobacco firms pour millions of pounds into electronic cigarette advertising. Rory Sutherland, vice chairman, Ogilvy & Mather UK discusses.
E-cigarettes are a disruptive innovation. Like many disruptive innovations, they emerge unexpectedly from the bottom up, not from the top down – and are pioneered not by large companies but by small start-ups. As such they are always rather annoying to a number of vested interests and large organisations.
You might assume I am referring to the tobacco industry here, and in part I am. But this natural resistance also extends to other interest groups – pharmaceutical companies who are heavily invested in patches and gums, and even anti-smoking groups who have made an enormous emotional investment in other solutions to the problem, and who may resent the idea that their problem is being solved in other ways by someone else entirely. Purists may also be naturally hostile to the idea of harm-reduction as opposed to outright abstinence.
But e-cigs are important in that they seem to satisfy cravings in a way that other substitutes may not. Addiction is highly complicated. Regular drinkers will become effectively drunk if they consume large quantities of tonic water from glasses of which the rims have been merely dipped in gin. A large part of addiction may lie not only in a chemical dependency but in the rituals and sensations attached to smoking – which e-cigs mimic in a way other replacement therapies don’t.
That’s why, for the moment, we should give this technology the benefit of the doubt.
None of this is to say that e-cigs are harmless. It is simply too early to say. There are almost certainly as-yet undiscovered risks attached to them. Some of the the appeal of e-cigarettes, let’s be candid, is that you can use them in places where you can’t smoke normal cigarettes (though this does not include aeroplanes, as I recently learned).
But some arguments are probably a bit desperate. I am instinctively suspicious of claims that they are ‘gateway drugs’ – that children will automatically progress from e-cigs to the real thing. First of all, appeals which rely on urges to ‘think of the children’ are quite often little more than emotional blackmail. Besides, the whole ‘gateway’ argument is a little fatuous: I am sure I could make the case that Lapsang Souchong is a gateway-drug to crack-cocaine if I chose my statistics selectively enough. And, to me, the magic of e-cigarettes is that, after using them for a while, the urge to use real cigarettes has disappeared almost completely – something I never thought would happen.