Debra Goldman’s Postscript: Smoke Screen

I t’s not exactly an eye for an eye, but you get the gist. In exchange for immunity from lawsuits, tobacco companies are now willing to trade away their access to children. By giving their most politically powerful opponents, children’s advocates, their pound of flesh, the industry hopes to avoid dismemberment in court.

Mind you, the tobacco companies have yet to admit they market to children. Their defense against those who accuse them of selling death to the young has been to deny that their marketing works. No, they insist, we aren’t trying to attract new consumers.

This claim isn’t as big a howler as swearing before Congress that cigarettes aren’t addictive, but it’s close. Even now, as statistics show that teen smoking is on the rise, the tobacco companies insist that Joe Camel and Marlboro Gear are innocent bystanders.

Let’s give tobacco companies an undeserved benefit of the doubt. Let’s say they spend close to $5 billion a year in advertising and promotion simply to retain adult smokers’ loyalty to their brands. The record shows that models in tobacco ads have aged–no one mistakes them for teens. And players in 1996’s Marlboro Unlimited sweepstakes had to sign a statement declaring themselves adult smokers in order to be eligible. This is the kind of scrupulous targeting only the threat of lawsuits can inspire.

But no one buys the tobacco line–and with good reason. It’s difficult not to market to children, even with the best will (and lawyers) in the world. Kids don’t live under a bell jar. Spend enough money promoting the puss of an eye-catching dromedary, half proboscis, half penis, and young people notice.

The tobacco companies blame the recent rise of teen smoking on general societal influences. Anti-smoking crusaders retort that $5 billion buys a lot of general societal influence. Child advocates don’t even have to prove that claim (nor have they); sheer common sense suggests that it’s true.

It happens, too, that attention-getting ads are often hip, cutting-edge stuff, and young people are, by definition, the best audience for hip and edgy. The Miller Lite campaign, which has given so many adults the willies, offers the perfect example of what happens when edgy creative and sin products meet. Miller’s ad defense is that their 20-something male targets think they’re funny. But do 14-year-olds also find them funny?

The whole campaign works on the premise that an adolescent sense of humor lies buried in the reptilian brains of men of all ages. So what happens when some advocacy group delivers a survey that shows a certain percentage of junior high school kids are on a first-name basis with Dick the copywriter?

Miller Beer doesn’t have to lift its spokescharacter out of a high school yearbook to reach the young. The unintended consequence of running bimbos out of brewsky ads is that in their absence, beer spots, such as the feted frogs of Budweiser, have become fun for the whole family. Ironically, just as the beer industry falls under the shadow of the sin product police, many of its ads are more G-rated than ever.

As brewers are dragged into the brouhaha over alcohol advertising on TV, they are also finding themselves in the paradoxical position of claiming their marketing isn’t all that influential, while their opponents insist it succeeds all too well. Beer marketers, like the tobacco industry, could swear that they don’t target under-age consumers. They could even be telling the truth, and it still won’t matter.

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