Last Gasp For Tobacco Ads

With the ban in Britain, one less avenue for creative tobacco work

When tobacco marketing was virtually eliminated in Britain in February, the country’s mainstream media eulogized a sector that had produced some of the most iconic work in U.K. advertising of the past 30 years. Collett Dickenson Pearce put packs of Benson & Hedges in bizarre but artful situations in posterlike print. Then came Silk Cut’s beautifully photographed images of cut purple silk, often featured in surreal scenarios without a cigarette in sight, out of Saatchi & Saatchi and later M&C Saatchi.

“In the U.K. you could have produced some of the best ads of your career working on tobacco,” says Tim Delaney, creative founder of London’s Leagas Delaney (which itself has avoided tobacco work).

If tobacco advertising disappeared in the U.S. tomorrow, who would even notice? The category has never inspired the kind of breakthrough creative seen in the U.K. Other than the Marlboro Man, created by Leo Burnett in 1955, few campaigns have carved out a lasting impression. And few are likely ever to achieve that as the increasingly stigmatized industry fades from view in the mass media, slipping into a price- driven world of promotions.

Apart from government restrictions—which began in 1969 when cigarette ads were kicked off the TV screen and continued through 1999 when billboards became off-limits—there are new forces at play. In the wake of the $206 billion Master Settlement with the states attorneys general in 1998, the tobacco giants passed along the cost of their legal liabilities in the form of higher prices. It didn’t take long for discount alternatives from upstart rivals to nibble away at entrenched brands. Bargain-basement cigarettes also benefit from cheap Internet distribution, a workaround to rising state excise taxes. These brands, many of which didn’t exist a decade ago, held a 28.3 percent market share in the fourth quarter, according to Maxwell Consumer Report.

The specter of price looms over current print work: For R.J. Reynolds’ Doral, Greensboro, N.C.-based Coyne Beahm’s tagline is, “Imagine getting more.” A $20 bill emerges from a fortune cookie, and a message on the side of the page declares, “I see cha-ching in your future.” For Brown & Williamson’s Pall Mall, Grey’s G2 unit promises a smoke that, “Burns slower. Lasts longer.” A chart compares the number of puffs that filtered Pall Malls deliver versus non-B&W brands.

The Marlboro Man, once a ubiquitous figure riding through the pages of U.S. consumer publications, has disappeared from print altogether. Marlboro owner Philip Morris—the industry’s dominant force, with a 48.3 percent U.S. market share—began taking dollars out of magazines in 1999 and is virtually out of print now. In 2002, tobacco companies ran 2,011.73 ad pages in magazines compared with 6,496.32 in ’99, according to Publishers Information Bureau. Funds have shifted into direct marketing and promotions. Last year, for example, Marlboro offered discounts of up to $7.50 a carton and a “Buy two, get one free” promotion.

The bottom-line pitches seen in Doral and Pall Mall ads underscore the fact that those brands have traditionally targeted older smokers, who are more likely to switch to cheaper brands. Where the remnants of industry creativity reside these days is in marketing aimed at younger consumers, with advertisers betting hip attitude will sway the image-conscious set.

Consider RJR’s work from Philadelphia hipster agency Gyro. Agency founder Steven Grasse first approached the Winston-Salem, N.C., company 10 years ago when critics were charging that mascot Joe Camel was a lure for underage smokers. Grasse showed what he could do when, in 1996, he relaunched dormant RJR brand Red Kamel, using cool, retro graphics and club-scene promotions. That led to Gyro landing assignments for flagship RJR brands Camel, Winston and Salem.

The Master Settlement put an end to cartoon characters like Joe Camel, and in place of the laughable spokescharacter with the clumsy innuendo, Gyro combined humor, cool design and typography with sexy images from of-the-moment photographers like David LaChapelle and Moshe Brakha. Gyro reinvented Camel and is attempting the same with other brands—last year, for example, it introduced clever packaging for Winston that resembles a hip flask.

Marlboro may have a longtime positioning as a maverick, tied to the lone cowboy, but it’s by far the establishment brand, with more than 38 percent of domestic market share. No wonder rivals like RJR are looking to cultivate an image of rebellion to go up against the brand favored by the fathers and grandfathers of many new smokers. The trick is to avoid any appearance of targeting underage smokers—last year RJR was fined $20 million by a California judge for advertising in magazines with large teen readerships, including Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone. (RJR has appealed the ruling.) Insists Grasse: “I only sell products aimed at adults.”

Given the highly emotional, politically correct atmosphere surrounding the U.S. industry, wit may be what American tobacco ads have most lacked. “In the U.S. there is a creative stigma with working on the business because so much of the ads are just crap. They’re so banal,” says Delaney. “So many of the campaigns have the same ingredients—you just move them around from campaign to campaign.”

On the contrary, some U.K. shops have ridden tobacco accounts to creative celebrity. Collett Dickenson Pearce, now CDP Travissully, set the standard with surreal graphics in work such as 1993’s “Piano Tuna,” a posterlike ad with a fish resting on a keyboard, its head next to a pack of Benson & Hedges. The only copy is the mandated warning about the dangers of smoking. “Campaigns like Benson & Hedges’ were groundbreaking because they don’t have any sense of the tobacco industry,” observes Delaney. “They were like icons that made cigarettes part of a surreal world.”

Granted, it’s not easy to create a sales pitch for marketers who can’t make any direct claims in their ads. Attempting to go the offbeat route of U.K. marketers, some U.S. brands have ended up with work that’s nothing short of absurd. Consider a Newport ad from 10 years ago out of now-defunct New York shop Ally & Gargano. The headline screams, “Alive with pleasure!” and a young man, no cigarette in sight, hugs a huge snowman with a Carmen Miranda-like fruit basket on its head.

British agencies, in contrast, poked fun at marketing restraints: “We can’t say anything about Winston cigarettes,” says a 1970s J. Walter Thompson ad. “So here’s a tart on a bar.” (Those hoping for a peek at a seductive woman got a jam cake instead.)

Silk Cut used everything from cheese graters spewing out purple-silk ticker tape to a torn purple shower curtain reminiscent of Psycho to illustrate its moniker, also with the health warning as the only copy. In the final days before the U.K. marketing ban went into effect (previous restrictions were similar to U.S. laws, although outdoor was allowed), Silk Cut created a farewell ad with a singing fat lady in a purple dress—with a slit in it, of course.

“The Silk Cut campaign proves you can stay within codes and still intelligently appeal to a witty, adult population,” says Paul Graham, account director on Silk Cut at M&C Saatchi in London.

Gyro is the rare U.S. tobacco shop that agrees government restraints don’t inevitably result in poor work. “The more regulations, the tighter the brief, the better the creative,” says Grasse. “There are a lot of rules, and the rules make you think. It’s a very interesting creative challenge.”

Gyro, an unlikely tobacco shop by any traditional standard, now counts RJR as one of its largest clients and has unabashedly embraced the category. Few other agencies do likewise. For instance, most creatives working on domestic tobacco accounts were not allowed to respond to Adweek’s requests for interviews.

It has long been believed that creative agencies stay away from controversial tobacco accounts because they can afford to—which accounts for some of the lackluster work in the U.S. Most high-profile agencies with tobacco accounts—Leo Burnett, Grey, Bates and now Ogilvy & Mather with its newly awarded Pall Mall brand—handle the business via separate below-the-line units. The agencies say they’ve done so to better service their clients’ integrated needs; cynics think it’s also a way to keep the category at arm’s length.

The tobacco industry, after all, has a particularly shady past when it comes to marketing. In the best snake-oil traditions of American hucksterism, ads claimed cigarettes were beneficial for health—even for throat care—and used themes of female liberation to sell a product inevitably addictive. Last year, Tobacco Control, a British medical quarterly, reported that tobacco firms made a priority of using the glamour and cachet of Hollywood to reach smokers, particularly young ones. For instance, documents made available after the Master Settlement showed that in the early ’80s, RJR had a publicist distribute free smokes to celebrities.

Account execs working on tobacco adopt a libertarian position about marketing it. It’s a legal product, they say, and the same governments attacking cigarettes are only too happy to pocket the taxes earned off them. And they ask, where does regulation stop? What’s next, fatty foods?

But if Gyro has injected some creative influence into the category, some say the better the work, the worse for impressionable consumers new to the product. Many copywriters and art directors believe tobacco poses a complex dilemma for those asked to develop a creative strategy for a product with serious health risks.

For one thing, there are the “personal, selfish” reasons that creatives shy away from the category. “There are creative directors in this country who see tobacco ads in your book and won’t even look at it,” observes Jeff Johnson, president and CEO of Atlanta-based WestWayne, which used to work on RJR’s Salem. “There’s a blacklisting that goes on that doesn’t seem to happen in account management.”

And while account execs can “justify and rationalize working on tobacco and keep it at a distance,” it’s different for a creative, notes Johnson, who says WestWayne will not take tobacco business—he inherited Salem from previous management—because it’s too divisive an issue. “You want to find an emotional bond, a story that makes consumers’ lives better,” he says. “Creatives make the work better when they’re emotionally involved. It’s hard to do that if you don’t believe something is good for you.”

As the tobacco industry has changed, work with whimsy and imagination may be beside the point. In today’s integrated marketing campaigns, ads are one small spoke in a pragmatic marketing wheel. Brown & Williamson’s lead brand, Kool, last year sponsored a “Play on the House Spades Slam” card tournament, targeting the cigarette’s urban franchise. Created by Bates, the 16-city tour ended in Las Vegas, offering a $50,000 grand prize. Such promotions have helped Kool become the menthol category’s fastest-growing brand. More tellingly, it’s a glimpse of the changing definition of “creative” in the tobacco category. Kool avoided a price-driven approach in favor of events, direct marketing, promotion, retail and some media.

“Through-the-line thinking in every bit of your marketing mix is critical to communicating your message,” says Ludo Cremers, a Brown & Williamson vp of marketing. “Media is still important, but it’s not something you can rely on.”