Tobacco Ads Continue Their Descent Into Nothingness

Not to be outdone, Brown & Williamson weighs in with its Lucky Strike “American Original” campaign from Bates, peppered with pouty hipsters in standard-issue greasy hair, leather jackets, and Skechers, looking about as friendly as Osama bin Laden’s bodyguards.

But the focal point for this work is in Philly, where those rogues at Gyro Worldwide’s oeuvre for Red Kamel and Kamel Menthe has proved the most outrageous cigarette advertising in years. Everything from classic ’40s pinups to staged movie tableaux to ’70s cop shows have helped create a brand image that’s sophisticated, media-hip, and damned appealing. Even might make you want to, well, hell – just go grab a pack and light up!

camelsexThe irony, of course, is that this work has begun to get interesting just when its future is in jeopardy. While the industry dodged Draconian restrictions on ad content when last year’s big tobacco settlement fell apart, some observers feel it’s only a matter of time before the entire category gets banned.

If that’s the case, then some brands must be preparing to go out with a bang. The ads cited above stand out in a field best known for forgettable, middle-of-the-road imagery and lame strategic appeals based on taste. For the most part they’re awful, and for lots of reasons. The category is still the advertising industry’s greatest pariah. The biggest agencies have no problem hawking thrombosis-inducing Big Macs, Milky Ways, and Bud Lights, but offer them a chance to pitch the Lorillard business and they’ll likely pass. (To some, this is a sign of integrity; to others, of sanctimony.)

Whatever your take on the issue, tobacco advertising remains as controversial and polarizing as ever. But now, even as the threat of an eventual ban is looming, anti-smoking campaigns funded by tobacco-settlement money are emerging. The anti-smoking category is backed by about $50 million in media spending, a figure that will increase tenfold once the settlement money kicks in, notes Ira Teinowitz, who covers tobacco for Advertising Age. Tobacco marketers, meanwhile, spend upwards of a billion dollars on advertising and promotion.

A handful of states have run award-winning anti-smoking campaigns for several years, most notably Massachusetts (by Boston’s Houston Effler Herstek Favat, now part of Arnold Communications) and California (by Asher & Partners, Los Angeles). Both campaigns take predictable approaches: California’s seeks to convince teens that smoking is uncool, while Massachusetts’s tries scare tactics with testimonials from cancer survivors.

Now Florida has pitched in with an aggressive effort by Miami shop Crispin, Porter & Bogusky, attacking the tobacco industry as an insidious, profit-mad killer and urging young people to take an activist stance not only against the industry but also against their ad agencies – a maneuver almost unheard of in marketing.

Such advertising’s effectiveness is open to debate. Along with the resurgence of such retro passions as lounge culture, swing music, and the Rat Pack has come a new acceptance in some circles of smoking as perfectly okay – indeed, kind of a good thing, in a bad way. Spend some time in front of a 7-Eleven and you’ll be struck by how many kids smoke. Cigarettes are still the most recognizable way to rebel, and the shock value of Camel Lights ads – not to mention Winston’s tweaking of authority-play into that mentality.

Compare this subtle subversion, and this acknowledgment of smoking’s outlaw nature, with a recent Benson & Hedges campaign illustrating “the lengths you go to for pleasure,” with images of smokers indulging themselves in precarious spots, like skyscraper ledges. The ads were brilliant in their double-entendre: Not only did B&H smokers go to great lengths to put up with increasing restrictions on their so-called right to smoke, they also went to added length for what we assume to be great taste. (And the brand is just a few silly millimeters longer.)

Martin MacDonald has seen cigarette advertising from both sides – as a creative director first at Asher & Partners, and later at Salem’s agency, West Wayne. He’s now executive creative director at the London office of Bronner, a direct-marketing shop. MacDonald grew up in a Scottish household full of smokers, and he’s squarely on their side.

“I’m sick of people saying that advertising makes people smoke,” he snaps. Most of Asher’s studies of teenagers indicated that they smoked to look cool and to have something to do with their hands, he says, and they chose their brands largely by what their friends were smoking. That tends to support the dubious rhetoric of the tobacco industry, which claims that cigarette ads are designed not to encourage smoking but to make smokers want to switch brands.

If you ask tobacco industry representatives what the goal of this work is, they’ll say it’s to entertain, which has become the raison d’etre of so much advertising today, particularly work that seeks to say nothing substantive about the product. Cigarette brands are as much a badge as beer brands, and it’s no coincidence that most mass-market brews have taken up similar approaches. Look at the Budweiser Frogs, which some critics liken to Joe Camel.

As long as cigarette ads were invisible, things were sort of okay; we could rail about them in general terms without having specific ads to pillory. But now, with the tobacco category already squarely in the crosshairs, ads like the infamous Winston spread showing a man with his head stuck up his ass call attention to themselves.

MacDonald, ever the contrarian, says that despite talking to hundreds of teens during his Asher days, he never came across any who said they smoked a specific brand because of its advertising. “And in America, why would they?” he says. “Cigarette advertising here has been shit for years.” That’s because the best creative people in the ad business wouldn’t touch these accounts, and that’s not going to change soon.

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