The Big Lie – the complete book online - 20 Tobacco

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Chapter 20

You stick it between your lips and set fire to it? And then it kills you?


In the United States in 1949 the National Broadcasting Company launched the “Camel News Caravan”, a 15-minute television programme fronted by the eminent newscaster John Cameron Swayze. The sponsors laid down certain ground rules. Cigars were considered a competitive product, so no news footage could be shown of anyone smoking one – with the exception of Winston Churchill, who was granted a special dispensation. Filmed shots which showed “No Smoking” signs in the background were strictly forbidden.

Every kid always knew you shouldn’t smoke if you wanted to be an athlete. And everyone could hear a smoker’s cough. Even cigarette advertisements admitted there was a problem. A typical American example from the 1930s showed a glamorous woman puffing away over the headline: “20,679 physicians say LUCKIES are less irritating”. The copy explained, “Toasting removes dangerous irritants that cause throat irritation and coughing”.

But other doctors could see inside the lungs. In 1964 the Surgeon-General’s office of the United States established the link between smoking and lung cancer. Yet, in a country which had made the movies which glamorised smoking throughout the world, where former President Ronald Reagan once advertised Chesterfields wearing a cowboy suit, and which still subsidised its tobacco farmers because of the export value of their crop, regulation was an uphill struggle. The strategy of the tobacco companies was consistent denial. Their argument was that there was no incontrovertible proof, which gave smokers, who were unable to give up one of the world’s most addictive substances, the answer they wanted to hear. At the same time the tobacco industry fostered “independent” research aimed at disinformation and launched filter cigarettes, which appeared to be safer but were no less dangerous. And, reaching into bottomless pockets it fought every legal action tenaciously. Tobacco companies never paid a penny in damages until 1999 when they disgorged $206 billion to 46 American states, the largest legal settlement in the history of the world, to avoid being sued for the medical costs of treating smokers. Yet, apart from the Ligget Group, the smallest manufacturer, the industry refused to comply with new codes forbidding the use of cartoon characters in advertisements, which the Federal Drug Administration asserts are deliberate attempts to hook children.

The youth market is critical for cigarette manufacturers because the users of their products do not live as long as other people. In Britain half of all regular cigarette smokers are eventually killed by their habit. Eighty-two per cent of smokers begin as teenagers, and advertising to children is a good investment. Thirty per cent of those who experiment with cigarettes become regular smokers. And, on average, an adolescent who smokes at least 100 cigarettes has committed to 16-20 years of addicted smoking before he will be able to quit. In 1999 one in three
15-year-old girls were smoking regularly in Britain, on the increase for the first time in 25 years.1

How advertising people rose to the challenge of persuading youth to acquire a deadly habit was revealed in a strategic advertising planning document dating from 1975 which surfaced in a legal action against British American Tobacco in 1999. The Ted Bates agency presented proposals to the BAT subsidiary Brown & Williamson for its Viceroy brand which aimed to convert non-smokers and smokers of competitive brands. In order to avoid confronting smokers with “the fact that they are illogical, irrational and stupid”, the recommendation was to present cigarette smoking as an initiation into the adult world.


In the young smoker’s mind, a cigarette falls into the same category with wine, beer, shaving, wearing a bra (or purposely not wearing one), a declaration of independence and striving for self-identity . . . Present the cigarette as part of the illicit pleasure category of products and activities . . . touch on the basic symbols of growing-up, the maturity process. To the best of your ability (considering some legal constraints) relate the cigarette to pot, wine, beer, sex, etc.


Commenting on the litigation, a B&W spokesman passed the buck: “We eventually fired Ted Bates & Co”.

The tobacco companies’ classic defence of advertising, and its common sense rebuttal, were efficiently summarised in an exchange of letters in the Guardian in 1992:


The reason the tobacco companies do not “save themselves a bob or two” (letters February 14) is the same as why petrol companies do not save themselves a bob or two by ceasing to advertise and why soap manufacturers don’t do the same. The fact is that all such manufacturers spend money on advertising to encourage customers to switch brands, not to increase total consumption.

Sir Frank Rogers, Deputy Chairman of the Daily Telegraph, chairman of the Newspaper Publishers’ Association and of the European Publishers Council


We must be grateful to Sir Frank Rogers for his explanation that “manufacturers spend money on advertising to encourage customers to switch brands, not to increase total consumption” (letters February 19). We can now understand why the privatised utilities spend so much of their vast profits on advertising. Were it not for Beattie’s amusing routines I might be sending messages by pigeon post; the water companies dissuade me from filling my kettle from my ornamental fish pond; but for those cosy electricity adverts I would be using candles, and highly paid American stars are needed to induce me to switch on the gas rather than search the shores for driftwood to burn.

Gwenda Sanders, Folkestone, Kent


Advertising agencies were able to justify their work for tobacco companies only on the grounds that it was ineffective; that is, it could not create peer group pressure on young minds. Unlike the ads created for soft drinks, sweets, snacks, clothing, video games, toys, trainers and the rest, by which the same people earned their bread. Cigarette advertising, for some reason, was invisible to non-smokers or the young. With the accuracy claimed for laser-guided missiles, advertising messages targeted only existing smokers over age 25; new recruits could pick up the habit only from their example.

These assertions were contrary to the experience of virgin markets. In the late 1980s the US government negotiated trade agreements which permitted American cigarettes to be sold in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand in competition with state-owned tobacco monopolies. Because established smokers rarely change brands, manufacturers sought to attract young non-smokers and, particularly, to emancipate women from the social strictures against smoking, as they had in the United States in the 1920s.

As a condition of a 1987 trade agreement, cigarette advertising was introduced into Taiwan for the first time. Advertisers were unhampered by the advertising taboos of the West: they could use attractive young role models, and a fag jutted once more from the weather-beaten lips of the Marlboro cowboy. Although American cigarettes were far more expensive, within six years smoking amongst high-school students rose from 26 to 48 per cent for boys, and from 1 to 20 per cent for girls. When American tobacco advertising assaulted Japan that same year, the domestic monopoly retaliated with a new brand called Dean, after James Dean, and another called Misty, aimed at young women. Within a year cigarette expenditure on television had risen from the fortieth largest product category to second, and smoking by women and teenagers soared. A year after the South Korean market was breached the smoking rate for male teenagers rose from 18 to 30 per cent, and for young girls from 2 to 9 per cent. By the mid-1990s Asia was in the grip of a smoking epidemic, as Britain had been in the 1930s.

The advertising of tobacco products was finally banned in Britain in the closing days of the 20th century. Television advertising had been outlawed in 1965. Over the intervening thirty-five years, tobacco advertising in other media was increasingly restricted. It could not show people who appeared to be under 25, nor attractive models; it could not glamorise smoking nor encourage people to smoke. In short, it should be as ineffective as possible. The advertising response to these interim measures is instructive: it suggests how the ban on advertising will also be compromised.

In 1977 cinema-goers were mystified by a cinema commercial in which the camera spun through impressions of dazzling sunshine and glittering wealth before coming to rest on a glowing pack of cigarettes: Benson & Hedges Gold. By the early 1980s gold-tinged press and poster advertisements were omitting the brand name altogether. Without the obligatory black-and-white government health warning there would have been no clue to the advertiser. The puzzle begged involvement and the solution was simple-minded: B&H = gold = status. These enigmatic advertisements reaped a golden harvest of advertising awards, unleashing a flood of copycat advertising. A cigarette was the first to subvert advertising itself. In the early 1980s posters appeared whinging, “We’re not allowed to tell you anything about Winston cigarettes, so here is a tart leaning on a bar”, and showed a picture of a jam tart resting on an iron bar. Another, with the conclusion “. . . so here’s a walk in the Black Forest”, showed a Chinese wok buried in a gateau.

In 1984 Charles Saatchi, whose agency had flourished on the reputation of its early anti-smoking campaigns for the Health Authority, had a creative inspiration on the level of a pictogram: the brand Silk Cut could best be embedded in the national consciousness by showing a piece of rent silk fabric next to a pair of scissors. Through endless extenuations of this theme (by 1993 it was a swordfish wearing silk boxing shorts) the fabric was always purple, the colour of the pack. Cigarette packs, which are displayed as a badge of personal identity, are strongly identified with recognisable colours. All cigarette advertising soon became fixated on a single objective: to identify the brand with a colour, or in some cases a number, appearing on the pack. It was a hedge against the future: if tobacco advertising were to be banned, the brand message could still be semaphored, on television and elsewhere, through sponsorship of sporting events and other activities.

The only product claim now permitted was the stark advice of the Chief Medical Officer. Sometimes, in the absence of any other headline, the warning was bizarrely appropriate: a 1995 advertisement showed a very sick-looking multi-coloured frog with its long tongue extended on the ground above the legend “Smoking makes you ill”. A 1999 advertisement welcoming readers to “Marlboro Country”, now compulsorily voided of cowboys, showed vultures wheeling in a circle, with the headline, “Warning: Picnic Area”. A more direct message appeared underneath, “Smoking Causes Cancer”. Cigarette advertising had been forced into a flight from meaning, but because of the massive amounts tobacco companies expended on advertising, meaning hardly mattered. The objective was to make their brands, or at least the signalling colours of their brands, ubiquitous. Coca-Cola has followed the same policy all over the world for decades. If brands appear everywhere – in magazines and newspapers, on posters, shop fronts, product displays, the exteriors of buildings, football grounds, discos, and cigarette machines – they cannot be dislodged from the mind. It is the oldest trick in the catechism of advertising: simple repetition. And high visibility implies the endorsement of the society in which these messages appear: anything that is so omnipresent must really be okay.

In 1993 one of Britain’s favourite cartoon strip characters kicked the habit. The crumpled fag which had dangled from the lower lip of Andy Capp for 36 years suddenly disappeared. His creator, Reg Smythe, explained, “Too many kids read the cartoon and it was time he set a good example”. Too late. Andy Capp’s role as a totem of bolshy northern male chauvinism had already been appropriated by another character, and this one was in the employ of a cigarette company. In 1992 posters and newspaper ads began to appear north of the Trent featuring another Reg, a fat middle-aged man of moronic appearance, who promoted Imperial Tobacco’s downmarket cigarette brand, Embassy Regal, with the slogan, “I smoke ’em because my name’s on ’em”. His dirty finger-nails clutching the pack obscured the last two letters of the brand name. Reg specialised in gnomic pronouncements of schoolyard wit: “Reg on taxes: too many cabs drive too fast”, and “Reg on party politics: If you drop ash on the carpet you won’t get invited again”.

The ASA determined that the Regal advertisements were not in breach of the voluntary advertising code: because “Reg” was neither young nor attractive, it concluded he could not be taken as a role model by those under 18 years of age. The adjudicators clearly were not readers of Viz magazine, the million-selling juvenile comic from which this innovative campaign borrowed its subversive tone. The pages of this comic abound with repulsive characters like “Reg” who flout authority, upholding the appealing virtues of disorder and ignorance . Your parents wouldn’t like them, and so kids do. Adults who exercise dominion over you may tell you not to smoke, but Reg says it’s all right to cock a snook. While the ASA failed to spot that Reg was an anti-hero fomenting youthful rebellion, Viz magazine acknowledged the homage from the world of advertising by running a mock advertisement satirising the campaign, with Reg saying, “I smoke ‘em cos I’m chemically addicted to nicotine”. Another tribute came from the 1992 Campaign Poster Awards, where the Reg campaign garnered a fistful of top awards. Adrian Holmes, chairman of the agency Lowe Howard-Spink, which created the campaign, enthused “Creative restrictions, far from limiting the advertising mind, actually seem to stimulate it”.

Within a twelvemonth of the campaign’s launch the Health Education Authority discovered that awareness of the Regal campaign was 91 per cent amongst teenagers in the North of England, whereas only 50 per cent of adults had noticed it. It was particularly popular amongst 11-to-15-year-olds, with child smokers saying it gave them a reason to carry on smoking. Within that age group, in those regions, there had been a significant increases in the rate of regular smoking since the previous year. The authority concluded that the campaign was deliberately and effectively aimed at minors. By then Reg had entered the schoolyard argot. In Manchester, kids no longer called someone stupid a “Wally”; they called him a “Reg”. In Gateshead 80 per cent of underage smokers smoked Embassy Regal. The ASA was forced to reconsider its decision and the campaign was withdrawn.

Joe Camel, a wise-cracking, cigarette-smoking “cool” cartoon personification of the RJR Reynolds brand, starred for six years in one of the heaviest US advertising campaigns, beginning in 1987. Four years later, a study by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 91 per cent of 6-year-olds were able to recognise Joe Camel, only 5 per cent fewer than knew Mickey Mouse. More than half the children aged 3-6 could match the Joe Camel logo with a photograph of a cigarette. By 1993 Camel’s share of the under-18 market had zoomed from 0.5 per cent to 33 per cent. When the Federal Trade Commission moved to ban Joe, the brand switched to a new tack, introducing Camel Mild in 1994 with a list of schoolboy jests which would have made “Reg” reach for his sick bag, such as “The hard of hearing never confuse Camel Mild with Camomile because the former tastes smoother”.

In 1991 B J Cunningham, a chain-smoking entrepreneur in his 20s, took the paradox of cigarette smoking to its logical conclusion, launching a cigarette brand called Death. The pack was decorated with a skull and crossbones and in addition to the government health warning carried this additional manufacturers’ advice: “Smoking is addictive and debilitating, if you don’t smoke don’t start, if you smoke, quit”. Cunningham claimed he was introducing a new technique to cigarette marketing – blatant honesty: “breaking the taboo about death and smoking is our USP”. The brand was supported by advertising in youth media with illustrations such as chest X-rays showing a shadow and the message “Death Kills”. Nevertheless, the Death campaign was condemned by the anti-smoking lobby, which, unlike the ASA in the case of Embassy Regal, saw through a cynical effort to influence young people through nihilism and gallows humour. When the major multiples in the tobacco trade refused to stock his brand, Cunningham fell back on a duty-free import scheme. The crude appeal to feckless teenagers was replaced by pious full-page advertisements in national newspapers, complaining of the duplicitous advertising of other cigarettes. In 1994 five poster companies, whose biggest clients were the established tobacco companies, found ads for Death cigarettes too controversial and refused to accept them. (No such ban was imposed on the “Reg” campaign.) Death was killed when the Imperial Tobacco Company challenged Cunningham’s import scheme in the High Court and won.

The tobacco industry also advertised to solicit political support. A “light-hearted” but heavy-handed campaign offered as a guide to civilised social behaviour appeared in the American press in 1995. The advertisement cited eight “amusing” cartoon situations, only two of which had anything to do with smoking. Under the slogan “Together, we can work it out”, the sponsor was identified: “in the interest of an informed debate by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. We believe that most smoking issues can be resolved through dialogue and that discussion will help solve the issues without further government intervention”.

In Britain the Tobacco Advisory Council, the pro-smoking group financed by the cigarette manufacturers, used press advertising to lobby against a 1992 Department of Health Report which linked smoking with cigarette advertising. It reprised an ancient ad agency joke by showing a fat slob asking a chemist for “a box of tampons so I can ski, surf and ride horses, like they do in the adverts”. The copy argued, “Do you believe that an advertisement can make you buy something you don’t want? Because the anti-tobacco lobby does . . .” Nevertheless, in 1994 the Smee Report, commissioned by the government’s Health Select Committee and the European Union, affirmed the obvious: cigarette advertising induces people to buy cigarettes. In four countries where bans had been implemented, the number of smokers dropped by between 5 and 9 per cent. The British government banned tobacco advertising, but not yet sponsorship, at the end of 1999. The tobacco companies threw more lawyers at the problem and won an injunction giving them the right to appeal to the House of Lords on the technicality that the ruling pre-empted forthcoming EC legislation.

Anti-tobacco interests are gathering strength throughout the Western world. As part of the “master settlement” with the tobacco companies the colossal Marlboro man billboard bestriding Sunset Boulevard like an urban monument was ceded to the California Health and Education Department for its own campaign. The cowboy’s fag now drooped over the word “Impotent”, and the tobacco companies had to pay for it. Philip Morris sought to purchase legitimacy in the US. by establishing a department called “Youth Smoking Prevention”, and curiously, in view of its conviction that advertising cannot encourage youth to start smoking, launched a $100 million campaign to discourage them from starting. This was another diversionary stalling tactic; Philip Morris did not agree to respect the advertising restrictions aimed at youth which had been demanded by the state attorneys-general in 1997, such as eliminating all human images, including the Marlboro man.

The tobacco industry laid plans long ago to protect its vast worldwide revenues from cigarette marketing through “trademark diversification”. In 1990, the fourth largest advertiser in all of Malaysia was a small travel agency specialising in tours to mountain regions. On television, a 60-second spot ran at least once a night, extolling destinations such as the Alps, with their “clean mountain air”. The number of Malaysians vacationing in the Alps would appear unlikely to justify such expenditure, but the account was handled by the same advertising agency entrusted with the R J Reynolds business, and that tobacco company paid for all the TV advertising. The travel agency, Salem High Country Holidays, was named after one of their brands. BAT advertised the Benson & Hedges Bistro, a coffee shop in Kuala Lumpur. In Taiwan each tobacco company was limited to 120 magazine ads per year, but 1992 advertising promoting a Virginia Slims fashion show featuring young Western women in the brand’s colours at a Taipei disco was not counted against Philip Morris’s quota, because it made no mention of cigarettes.

In China, American cigarettes are available only in exchange for hard currency at specified locations convenient for foreigners. Direct cigarette advertising is outlawed. Yet the Philip Morris trademark, the Marlboro cowboy, is one of China’s best-known icons. By 1987 Marlboro was China’s fourth largest advertiser. Cigarettes were never shown, but the red-and-white Marlboro logo and cowboy appeared everywhere, even on Shanghai street furniture. To the Chinese, cowboys are workers, not heroes. But the horse represents health, success, and vitality. So the cowboy was transmogrified into a leader. In Shanghai in 1993 Marlboro sponsored an hour-long radio programme of American music regularly punctuated by the Marlboro theme song taken from the film The Magnificent Seven. Over thundering hooves and the shouts of the round-up, the Chinese voice-over enthused: “Jump and fly a thousand miles . . . Ride through the rivers and mountains with courage. Be called a hero throughout the thousand miles. This is the world of Marlboro”. Within a decade the sales of Philip Morris quadrupled in China.

Similar tactics are deployed in the west. In the mid-1970s BAT purchased Bucktrout, a centuries-old chandler’s in the Channel Islands, with the intention of launching a cigarette of that name, thus enabling it to back into a brand name with romantic associations which might legitimately continue to advertise indefinitely. While these plans never materialised, in the same decade Sotheby’s, virtually synonymous with fine taste, was persuaded to lend its august name to a packet of upmarket fags. Dunhill was one of the first to diversify its trademark, stretching it over a successful luxury goods empire. The Marlboro Country Store advertises a worldwide range of goods designed to recall the brand’s rugged image. It revived the addictive practice of collecting cigarette coupons, with its own Air Miles redemption scheme. It is rivalled by the Camel Collection, first launched in 1977, and the Lucky Strike Originals Collection. In none of these undertakings is there a whiff of smoke, but there are plenty of associations with macho endeavours of high romance, e.g. expeditions to search for Amazons in the interior of Venezuela. Tobacco companies have also registered their brands as beer, whisky, financial services, credit cards, electrical goods, footwear, stationery, coffee, model cars, perfumes, cosmetics and Internet-based travel and information services. According to the EC directive, a tobacco company’s brand name or branding features may be used on any of these, “but only if the presentation and the advertising of the non-tobacco product are clearly distinct from those of the tobacco product”. How this distinction might be made is a conundrum to delight the minds and fatten the pockets of lawyers for years to come.


Wherever in the world it is still permitted, cigarette advertising concentrates on brand recognition, often reduced to its essentials: the colours of the pack, which require no explanation, no international translation. Where advertising is banned, brand names are nevertheless omnipresent: free sampling in discos, sponsorship of glamorous rock concerts and other events where the price of admission is sometimes an empty cigarette pack. In Kenya free mobile cinemas show cigarette advertisements without health warnings. In the Dominican Republic, the Marlboro name and colours appear on road signs. In Bucharest the amber filters of many of the city’s traffic lights advertise the Camel brand. In devising alternative strategies to influence youth markets, the ingenuity of advertising agents who work for tobacco companies seems as limitless as the capacity of their clients’ pockets. As the comedian and heavy smoker, the late Peter Cook, pointed out when he was asked whether cigarette advertising should be banned:


It’s a daft idea. It took me years to work out those Silk Cut ads, so advertising doesn’t really hit me. How far could they take this? Remove all cigarettes from Humphrey Bogart movies?2

1 Statistics are extracted from the Journal of the American Medical Association, 1989 (a paper by Willard Manning) and 1996; John Pierce of the University of California, San Diego in the Milbank Quarterly, 1992; and the British Medical Journal, 1994.

2 The Independent on Sunday, 16 February 1992.


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