No One Wants to Admit to Repping Big Tobacco


Remember the Edelman-driven CVS initiative in which the pharmacy chain announced its plans to stop selling tobacco in its stores? How about the Truth anti-smoking spots created to shame celebrity tokers?

These felt like somewhat bold responses to a serious health epidemic. Were they, though? Or were they simply a reflection of a new societal consensus? This week we discovered an unsurprising fact: no one wants to admit to representing major tobacco companies. They have entered a class of client best labeled “forbidden.”

We here at Mediabistro run a separate blog called AgencySpy that covers the ad business, and this week we received a tip that one of the world’s biggest tobacco companies, R.J. Reynolds, had moved its business from a relatively small agency to a large one you may have heard of (which includes a separate PR practice).

The move had been rumored in the industry for some time. In July, a reporter from the Chicago Business Journal spoke to the agency’s president and specifically asked him whether it was true. He said that, while he couldn’t confirm it, he expected to have news by August 1st — the implication being that the pitch was ongoing.

When we inquired at the agency in question via phone and email, we received no definitive response despite testimony from various anonymous sources confirming that it would play at least some role in managing the R.J. Reynolds account. You won’t find a press release anywhere. In fact, we had to turn to the National Center for Biotechnology Information to find any evidence of the first agency representing the client with sponsorships and other events meant to help RJR “[penetrate] the underground hipster scene.”

The point? Some clients have been deemed so unsavory that agencies want to sweep them under the rug. Tobacco companies have achieved that status.

What’s the ethical line on this trend?

We find it interesting that tobacco is now a complete pariah while many agencies on both the ad and PR sides still proudly speak of work performed for clients that produce alcohol, soda, potato chips and any number of other unhealthy products. This isn’t a judgment, just an observation (for the record, we love beer and potato chips, preferably together).

But when does a client cross that line? In the wake of the carbonated beverage industry’s very public, Bill Clinton-approved campaign to help its own customers cut down on their daily calorie counts, will Big Soda be the next client that no one wants to claim? What about international dictators?

And what about, say, the world’s most profitable sports league?

@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.