Will legislation really help smokers quit?

24 Oct 2010|Added Value

As more and more governments pass legislation to restrict tobacco usage and communications, Dennis Wong from our Australian office asks whether the long arm of the law can really change the culture of smoking.  And shares some ideas on how marketing might help people kick the habit.

When I was a boy of about 8 or 9, my friends and I used to make our own cigarettes. Not real cigarettes of course, but as real as our imaginations and some household stationary could take us.

My technique involved cutting out little squares of white paper and using my glue stick to roll them into slender cylinders with one end coloured in yellow pen to represent the filter.

The real magic of my creativity was in the burning end. I’d meticulously use different shades of red, magenta and orange, sometimes even burning layers of the paper on a candle flame to get the effect just right. Once or twice I stuffed the tip with red cellophane so that it would catch the light and radiate like the burning embers of the real, grown up versions.

Then we’d pretend to smoke. How embarrassing.

But within this glimpse into my childhood lies a key insight into the sorcery of cigarettes and the reason why I believe the government’s strategy of forcing big tobacco to debrand their packaging is not the answer. It is, at its best, a half measure. In failing to address the core problem it is, I’m afraid, like trying to knock down a house with a chisel.

The success of smoking
The success of cigarettes has never lain with the appeal of brands, but rather the appeal of smoking itself. To put it in marketing speak, the category’s benefits far outweigh the brand benefits.

In layman terms, the badge of what you smoke is not as powerful as the badge of being a smoker.

Let’s be honest – if the tobacco business is still thriving after the government’s measures to put filthy, cancer riddled mouths in full colour on the fronts of ciggie boxes, you’d really have to question how successful enforcing brand names to be displayed in size 14 Arial font is going to be.

This latest measure seems to be a stopgap all too easy for tobacco companies to step over. It is simply the removal of another communication medium. If tobacco can live and thrive through the denial of advertising and sponsorship rights as it did in the early 90’s, I can’t imagine denying the rights to print a brand’s logo on packaging be any different.

Branding the ban
While the details are still hazy on what the ban actually entails, there feels to be a plethora of opportunities for tobacco to simply re-evaluate their branding strategy and tactics.

How about branding the sticks themselves? Making them different colours, unique to each brand? Using the packaging space instead to talk explicitly about ‘flavour’ rather than letting the brand be its proxy? Giving away sexy branded cigarette cases that come empty with the purchase of cigarettes for a promotional period? Refocusing budgets away from individual brands and instead, to the larger brand of smoking itself?

When cigarette advertising was banned in the 80’s, tobacco company’s profits actually increased because of the reduced expenditure. God forbid that the latest packaging measures are actually doing bottom lines a favour. But let’s remember, at the end of the day, tobacco companies care about selling cigarettes, not selling brands.

To truly stop smoking perpetuating itself in culture we must change tact. It will take more than strangling the accessibility of cigarettes. It will take more than shock tactics. To stop people from smoking, we must first truly understand its appeal – its benefits to the user. Only then can smoking be crushed once and for all.

Why do people smoke?
Depending on how developed you are as a smoker, cigarettes deliver against powerful functional, social and emotional desires, intertwined in a complex relationship that drags people in and hooks them in a death grip that few can beat.

Functionally speaking, cigarettes are about the smoke you inhale and what this does for your body – the hit of nicotine and a cocktail of lethal chemicals that quickly become an addiction. Normally, we would call the nicotine and chemical hit a functional ‘benefit’ but the downsides would make that too ironic.

A smoker might incorrectly believe that cigarettes have a functional benefit that makes them relax or calm, but these are actually emotional by-products of habit and addiction. As we all know, they also ultimately lead to either death or a pathetic set of lungs and a face at 40 about as handsome as your grandma after a long day at the solarium.

For addicted smokers, it makes sense that strategies that limit the accessibility of cigarettes and their use (such as price hikes and banning smoking from pubs) will have some effect by forcibly denying access, but why advertising dollars are spent on functionally oriented messages, single mindedly reminding people that cigarettes will kill them is beyond me. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the functional value equation is a losing proposition, so this signals that either people smoke because they’re addicted, or that smoking is laden with emotional and social goodies that are the real drivers of appeal.

On an emotional level, smoking has deep roots in bonding and belonging. Having a smoke, or a cigarette break has traditionally been a conduit for gossip, getting closer to the boss or someone you’ve got the hots for. Cigarettes play to this through the ritual of sharing – it’s no accident they come in packs of 20 or more; when you buy a pack of cigarettes, you are also investing in an opportunity to stand outside with other people and share a moment.

Again, limiting people’s opportunities to smoke, effectively destroying smoking’s ‘clubhouses’, will have some effect here, but it does not really go deep enough.

Smoking’s Achilles heel
The bigger challenge to address is how we can make the club of smoking a really, really unattractive club to be part of. This is smoking’s Achilles heel.

Addressing and squashing the perceived social benefits of cigarettes is how we will stop the next generation of smokers before they start. It seems so obvious, yet the social aspect of smoking is the big elephant in the corner that has seemingly been ineffectively addressed.

If you speak with anyone who took up smoking in their teens (the average age for adopting the habit is 16), they will readily admit that they did it because they thought it made them look cool. But what makes smoking cool to a teenager?

Well, it’s no new news that cigarettes are a social tool whose powers are at their greatest with the searching souls of the young. They play to the instincts of teenagers to find and signal their independence through rebellion – the badder cigarettes become, the better they get at doing this.

The good guys in the movies no longer smoke – only the bad guys. But this doesn’t do the anti-smoking cause any favours. See, kids don’t really want to be the good guy. They want to be the guy who defies convention, goes his own way and still comes out on top.

It’s this same romancing of the dark side of heroism that has also underpinned the rising profile of Jack Daniels as an aspirational brand for young drinkers. Just look at the way the packaging plays to codes of outlaws, poison and death.

It follows then that putting a festering artery on a packet may ironically provide an even greater badge to affirm a rebellious cause.

The rebellious social statement that smoking makes is only one part of the puzzle though – Smoking always has, and always will have an extra ace up its sleeve in the stakes of ‘cool’.

See, for centuries, man has been fascinated by fire, seeking to control its dangerous and unpredictable properties, and it is playing to this primeval urge that is a cigarette’s greatest talent. At the deepest possible psychological level, cigarettes represent a readily accessible way to nail our most basic human desires of power and control.

Motorbikes are also brilliant at delivering against these potent desires but of course, kids can’t get licenses, so they turn to cigarettes.

Fire! In your mouth! Inches from your face and the gateway to your internal organs! By smoking, subconsciously you are controlling fire. You are signalling that you have flit with danger and beaten it. What could be ‘cooler’ to a kid than that?

So even worse. In the mind of a susceptible teenager, smoking not only makes you the rebel… you become the rebel that wins.

How do we win the war against smoking?
If we plot the decline in smoking rates over the past 100 years against government anti-smoking expenditure you can see some pretty drastic diminishing returns. Like any running any campaign, diminishing returns are unsurprising, however we have to interrogate why the sharpest decline in smoking rates occurred before the real expenditure began. We also have to question what will reinvigorate the curve.

Click here for a full sized version of the chart

I want to be clear that the message here is not to criticise what the government is doing but rather, to help address the best way to solve the problem. As we’ve established, it feels like the battle needs to be moved from the functional front to the emotional and social one. No matter what damaged organ you show, no matter how impactful the copy, reminding people that smoking is bad for you is no longer working.

The debranding of cigarette packaging will affect the business of tobacco but it will not be a death blow. It is, rather, a further step towards the commoditisation of cigarettes, and let’s remember that commodity markets are very profitable trades to be in when there’s only a couple of big players.

The crafty marketers in big tobacco will consolidate their brands and they will come up with different ways to make smokers want to buy them, whatever guise they ultimately take.

Instead of making packaging look generic, how about banning the production of packets containing more than 5 cigarettes? Suddenly they become much harder to share, making smokers look not only like social rejects but tight arses as well. Harder to give a mate a ciggie when you’ve only got one left.

Branding uncool
We must refocus efforts on making smoking uncool, and this message must not come from the government. People think of the government like the way they think of their mum. The more forceful she becomes with her opinion, the less inclined you are to believe her. The voice must be that of peers, of people you respect and who see the world through the same windows. Think the brilliant anti-speeding campaign which has repopularised the symbolism of wiggling your little pinky. It’s the same insight and sentiment that underpinned the iconic ‘bag the fag’ campaign in the eighties, but it now needs to be re-expressed in a contemporary way that will resonate with today’s youth.

Their voice must make smokers look like nerds and social outcasts. It must make them look stupid. Smoking is, after all, stupid and stupidity is about as far from power and control as you can get.

By Dennis Wong, Added Value Australia

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