Stealth Marketing and Workarounds in the Tobacco Industry

Culture Stealth Marketing and Workarounds in the Tobacco Industry

Smoking has never been hotter. According to the Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association, consumer spending on tobacco products amounted to around £15 billion in 2012, with about 85% of this on cigarettes. Recent years have also seen similar profit margins. The innate dichotomy of tobacco’s profitability versus the increasingly drastic sanctions against it means that the industry has had to get creative – and at times arguably underhanded – with their advertising. Now, we examine the slightly unscrupulous world of stealth marketing.

Public health charity ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) cites conclusive evidence that advertising does encourage people to take up smoking, and notes that countries that have banned it have enjoyed a significant fall in smoking statistics. With this in mind, beginning in February 2003, the UK government has been enforcing a crackdown on all ‘above the line’ tobacco advertising – i.e. advertising via mass media visible to large sections of the population, such as television, radio, or newspapers. Since then further bans have followed on promotions, sponsorships of sporting events, large adverts in shops, and brand sharing.

Two-thirds of smokers start before the age of 18, so the foremost target market of the tobacco industry is the younger demographic. Particularly effective were ‘power walls’, an affectionate industry term for the point of sale displays in smaller shops. Power walls were carefully designed to subtly draw attention without flouting advertising laws. They did this through the use of eye-catching backlit gantries and uniquely designed towers housing the cigarette packs. Power walls were finally outlawed in April 2015.

The industry is also fond of innovatively using the packs themselves. Attempting to combat the compulsory government warnings, advertisers use bright colours and develop distinct brand styles, so that smokers themselves effectively do the advertising every time they take out their pack. By increasing the number of these brand variants, advertisers aim to maximise their visual impact on shelves. Frequent ‘limited edition’ packs encourage collection and add a sense of urgency to the process, in order to sell in greater numbers.

As national sanctions continue to mount up, tobacconists have recently turned to the Internet as an outlet to more effectively market their product. The globalised nature of the Internet makes national laws difficult to enforce, in turn making it a particularly lucrative worldwide market. A favourite recent approach is to invite comments on an image of a proposed pack design under the guise of market research. This has the result of encouraging consumer interaction and raising brand awareness while still being plausibly deniable as advertising.

Other tactics featuring beloved film characters smoking, such as John McClane in the Die Hard series. The cultivation and popularity of the timeless ‘bad-boy’ image associated with smoking remains extremely beneficial to its sales, and is again deeply mired with obstacles for law-makers.

Scruples aside, considering the approaches perfected by tobacconists can be a novel way to think outside the box. Who knows – they might just be the template for a winning marketing campaign of your own.

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