Advertising Strategy

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Globally, the tobacco industry spends large sums of money on advertising, sponsorship and promotion. For example, in 2014 tobacco companies spent more than US$9 billion on advertising and promotional expenses in the United States (US) alone.[1]

As advertising restrictions have become more prominent across the globe, the industry has had to adapt and be more creative in how it advertises its products, using sponsorship and different types of promotion.[2]

"How Do You Sell Death?"

In a British TV-documentary that aired in 1988, Fritz Gahagan, a former marketing consultant for five tobacco companies, provided insight into the dilemma faced by the tobacco companies:

“The problem is how do you sell death? How do you sell a poison that kills 350,000 people per year, a 1,000 people a day? You do it with the great open spaces ... the mountains, the open places, the lakes coming up to the shore, They do it with healthy young people. They do it with athletes. How could a whiff of a cigarette be of any harm in a situation like that? It couldn’t be - there’s too much fresh air, too much health - too much absolute exuding of youth and vitality - that’s the way they do it”.[3]

Link Between Advertising and Consumption

The tobacco industry has long argued that tobacco advertising is aimed at building brand loyalty, not trying to persuade young people to smoke or smokers to continue and not quit.[4]

However, some within the advertising industry have disputed this claim.

Emerson Foote, former Chairman of the Board of advertising agency McCann-Erickson, which handled US$20 million in tobacco account sales, was quoted in the 1960s as saying that: “The cigarette industry has been artfully maintaining that cigarette advertising has nothing to do with total sales. This is complete and utter nonsense. I am always amused by the suggestion that advertising, a function that has been shown to increase consumption of virtually every other product, somehow miraculously fails to work for tobacco products.”[5] Foote’s disapproval of tobacco advertising and handling tobacco company accounts led him to resign as chairman of McCann-Erickson in 1964.[6]

David Abbott, Chairman of advertising agency Abbott Mead Vickers argued in the late eighties:

"I think arguments like shifting brands are just insulting in their shallowness. There is no other category where you can spend between £70 million and £100 million and not have an effect in protecting or increasing the market. I think advertising has certainly slowed down the rate of decline. It has certainly helped to introduce new smokers, be they women or be they in the Third World. The other thing about cigarette advertising, I do think it makes it more difficult for health education in that it makes the Government’s attitude more ambivalent."[7][8] Abbott, who passed away in 2014, was known within the advertising world for being strongly principle-driven and declining to advertise tobacco products.[9]

In 1992, Dr. Clive Smee, then Chief Economic Adviser to the British Department of Health, published a comprehensive study of the link between advertising and tobacco consumption. He concluded: “The balance of evidence thus supports the conclusion that advertising does have a positive effect on consumption.”[10] Reviewing the impact of advertising bans that had been introduced at the time, Smee further concluded: "In each case the banning of advertising was followed by a fall in smoking on a scale which cannot be reasonably attributed to other factors."

The tobacco industry already knew about the causal link between tobacco advertising and consumption. In 1987, for example, the tobacco industry trade journal Tobacco International ran an article on cigarette consumption in Greece, stating that "the rise in cigarette consumption is basically due to advertising". Philip Morris responded to the article by saying that “the tobacco industry’s position in advertising is that it may influence the choice of one brand over another but has no effect on consumption …I am sure the statement in question was merely an oversight, but in the current climate of attempts to ban tobacco advertising in nearly all our major markets, it is certainly not helpful if critics can quote a tobacco industry trade journal to support their claims."[11]

A decade later, Gareth Davis, then Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Imperial Tobacco, while commenting on the proposed advertising ban in the UK said: “Obviously I am very much against anything that tries to reduce consumption of a legal product that is used by adults.”[12]

Using Sports

The reason for sports sponsorship was also revealed by an RJ Reynolds’ executive in the late eighties: “We’re in the cigarette business. We’re not in the sports business. We use sports as an avenue for advertising our products ...We can go into an area where we’re marketing an event, measure sales during the event and measure sales after the event, and see an increase in sales."[13]

The tobacco industry has had a long and close association with Formula One motor racing. In the mid-eighties, Barrie Gill, then CEO of Championship Sports Specialists Ltd., a sports sponsorship company, explained why: “It’s the ideal sport for sponsorship. It’s got glamour and worldwide television coverage. It’s a 10 - month activity involving 16 races in 14 countries with drivers from 16 nationalities. After football it's the Number One multinational sport. It’s got total global exposure, total global hospitality, total media coverage and 600 million people watching it on TV every fortnight.…It’s macho, it’s excitement, it’s colour, it’s international, it’s glamour.…They’re there to get visibility. They’re there to sell cigarettes.”[14]

Philip Morris has had a long relationship with Ferrari that started in 1984[15], and the tobacco company's brand Marlboro has been Ferrari’s title sponsor since 1997.[16][17][18] In September 2017, Philip Morris renewed its partnership with Ferrari which up to January 2019 was headed by former Philip Morris marketing executive Maurizio Arrivabene.[17][18][19] Sports Pro Magazine previously estimated that the tobacco company spent in the region of US$160 million a year on this sponsorship deal.[17] Senior PMI board members have been on the board of Ferrari, and vice versa. For example, in 2017 Philip Morris non-executive Chairman Louis C. Camilleri was on the Ferrari Board, and Ferrari’s chairman Sergio Marchionne was a member of the Philip Morris Board.[20][21]

For another example of sports sponsorship by tobacco companies, see our page on Gudang Garam and sports endorsement.

Advertising Bans: The United Kingdom

The UK is a Party to the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the world’s first global public health treaty. Article 13 of the Treaty requires Parties to implement and enforce a comprehensive ban on tobacco advertising within five years of ratifying the FCTC.[22] Virtually all tobacco advertising is now illegal in the UK:[22]

Tobacco advertising on television and radio was first prohibited by the Broadcasting Acts of 1990 and 1996, and the European Union’s Audio-visual Media Services Directive.

The Tobacco Advertising & Promotion Act 2002 (TAPA) was enacted in November 2002, which banned print media and billboard tobacco advertising in February 2003, tobacco direct marketing in May 2003, sponsorship within UK in July 2003, with a gradual phase out of sponsorship of global events (such as Formula One motor racing) by July 2005.

In 2004, space limitations were placed on the amount of advertising allowed at Point of Sale (with maximum allowance of 21x15cm). Since 2012 it has been illegal in England, Wales & Northern Ireland (and 2013 in Scotland) to display tobacco products in large stores, which was extended to small stores across the UK in April 2015.

As part of the Health Act 2009, the sale of tobacco from vending machines became illegal in England since October 2011.

With all these advertising bans in place, the tobacco pack became one of the few remaining promotional vehicles to reach potential and current tobacco users. In May 2016, Plain Packaging legislation came into force in the UK, requiring the removal of all branding on tobacco packs. Similar legislation was first introduced in 2012 in Australia, followed by Ireland,

Other Types of Advertising

TobaccoTactics Resources


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Fast Facts and Fact Sheets: Tobacco Industry Marketing, last updated 19 December 2016, accessed April 2017
  2. The American Cancer Society, The Framework Convention Alliance, and The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, How do you Sell Death…, November 2008, accessed April 2017
  3. C. Tremayne, “World in Action” The Secret of the Safer Cigarette. Documentary, Season 24 Episode 37, aired 4 July 1988
  4. British American Tobacco, [ Marketing our products responsibly. Our International Marketing Principles/, undated, accessed October 2017
  5. World Health Organization, Break the tobacco marketing net, World No Tobacco Day 2008: tobacco-free youth, accessed April 2017
  6. W. Saxon, Emerson Foote, 85, Who Headed Large Advertising Agencies, Dies, The New York Times, 8 July 1992, accessed April 2017
  7. Action on Smoking and Health, Tobacco Explained. The truth about the tobacco industry…in its own words, adapted for World No Tobacco Day, undated, accessed April 2017
  8. E. Clark, "Time to Smoke out Double Standards", Campaign, 1988, 6 May, p44-45
  9. David Abbott obituary, The Telegraph, 20 May 2014, accessed April 2017
  10. C. Smee, Effect of Tobacco Advertising on Tobacco Consumption: a discussion document reviewing the evidence, Economic and Operational Research Division. Department of Health 1992
  11. Tobacco Journal International, 1987, 17 April & 24 July
  12. B. Potter, “Tobacco Chief to Fight Advert Ban,” Daily Telegraph, 15 May 1997
  13. J. DePerel, "Warning: Sports Stars May be Hazardous to Your Health", The Washington Monthly, 1989, September, p34-49
  14. P. Taylor, Smoke Ring:Politics of Tobacco, 1 March 1984, The Bodley Head Ltd, pp. 101-103
  15. Philip Morris International, Letter from Louis C. Camilleri to PMI stockholders dated 26 March 2009, accessed October 2017
  16. B.Grant-Braham, J. Britton, Motor racing tobacco company sponsorship, barcodes and alibi marketing, Tobacco Control, 2012;21:529-535
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 Philip Morris renews Ferrari sponsorship on the quiet], ESPN, 14 May 2015, accessed September 2017
  18. 18.0 18.1 L. Edmondson, Ferrari renews Philip Morris partnership, ESPN, 4 September 2017, accessed September 2017
  19. Associated Press, Ferrari replaces Arrivabene with Binotto as team principal, 7 January 2019, accessed January 2019
  20. Philip Morris International, Board of Directors, undated, accessed October 2017
  21. Ferrari, Board of Directors, undated, accessed October 2017
  22. 22.0 22.1 ASH,Tobacco Advertising and Promotion in the UK, August 2015, accessed April 2017