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The tobacco industry and its marketing

The major tobacco companies have been in existence for more than 150 years, so they’ve had plenty of time to refine their marketing techniques. And for good reason: they need to persuade people to put a smelly, bad-tasting product into their mouths! Clearly, to be as successful as they’ve been, they need some fairly effective persuasion strategies!

Marketing is a question of life and death for any industry that wants to make a profit, and especially for the tobacco industry, whose product eventually kills one user in every two. That’s quite an achievement! Because cigarettes kill, however, the industry must convince people to start or resume smoking, otherwise it’ll be the one to die. So it spends billions of dollars on advertising every year.

In the industrialized world, the tobacco industry’s advertising is more subtle than it used to be. But however indirect its methods may be, its goal is still to persuade teenagers to try its products.

The average age of first-time smokers is 12.7 years.

At least three-quarters of today’s adult smokers had their first cigarettes before the age of 18. This proves one thing: the industry’s marketing is aimed first and foremost at teens. Not at adults.

Obviously, the tobacco companies categorically deny that they’re targeting teenagers. However, research has shown that they have studied this age group and its culture in some depth. They know how to trigger adolescent curiosity, and how to get them to associate tobacco products with their favourite activities and stars, and with values such as maturity and independence. Convincing teens that smoking is “cool” has become child’s play for an industry so skilled at manipulation.

One of the tobacco industry’s most recent tactics to reach the adolescent consumer group has been to create sophisticated packaging and launch new products.

A lengthy history of manipulation

Circa 1850: Few people smoked at that time. With the invention of machines able to produce hundreds of thousands of cigarettes every day, the tobacco industry was able to increase the supply and accessibility of the product quite considerably. As a result, it was able to target the middle and lower classes of society.

1914-1945: It was mainly thanks to three insidious but extremely adept strategies that the tobacco industry managed to anchor tobacco use in the industrial world:

  1. It persuaded the producers and stars of a new and powerful means of communication and enjoyment – the cinema – to adopt cigarettes.
  2. It systematically targeted the hitherto unexplored market of women, by making adroit use of the emerging feminist movement.
  3. In particular during the Second World War, it persuaded the governments of the "allied" countries to include cigarettes in the daily rations of all soldiers. As a result, more than 80% of all soldiers who came home from the war had become smokers.

1950: The first scientific studies on the dangers of smoking led to a reduction in tobacco consumption. To calm the fears of consumers, US tobacco company executives held a secret meeting in 1953. Leaders of all the major companies joined forces with their competitors to develop combined strategies to reinforce their products, even going so far as to commission fake health studies to make people believe tobacco wasn’t dangerous.

1960: Tobacco products were now featured on popular television shows, and movie stars were smoking, too. The Flintstones even promoted a brand of cigarettes!

1980: Citing scientific findings, the medical community publicly stated that cigarettes foster dependency, a fact that tobacco companies continued to deny.

1990: Tobacco companies began to sponsor major sports and cultural events. In order to attract teens, so-called “lifestyle” advertisements associated tobacco products with activities and values that are important to them (trendy appearance, adventurous, sexy, independent, etc.).

1994: Executives from major tobacco companies swear under oath that tobacco does not lead to dependency. One month after their testimony, 4,000 pages of internal documents produced by one of the companies were leaked to the press. The documents revealed that the industry had known full well since 1963 that tobacco causes a number of diseases and causes addiction.

1998: New revelations showed that the tobacco industry deployed a number of deceptive strategies to promote its products. These include financing studies on the psychological profile of kids aged 11 to 13 in order to determine what motivated them to start smoking.

1997 to 2006: The governments of Québec and Canada imposed numerous restrictions: illustrated warnings on packages (2000), a total ban on sponsorship (2003), and a ban on smoking in bars and restaurants and on school grounds (2006). In 2008, a ban was also imposed on advertising and displaying tobacco products in stores.

However, the tobacco industry scored a direct marketing hit by launching flavoured cigarillos, which look like candies. A lot of teens fell into the trap; in 2006, 22% of teens smoked cigarillos, compared with 15% who smoked cigarettes.

2010: A federal law imposed new restrictions on the sale of individual cigarillos and banned manufacturers from using flavour additives in cigarillos weighing 1.4 g or less. The tobacco industry circumvented these measures by slightly modifying the weight of the product and thus creating a loophole in the law.

Québec and Canada are pioneers in the fight against tobacco. Thanks to their actions, tobacco is losing ground. However, it should come as no surprise to know that the tobacco companies are refusing to play dead. Today, they’re trying to promote new products to attract new victims into their nets. But they’re being watched by a number of youth groups, who have come together to denounce packaging made to resemble objects commonly used by modern teens (e.g. Ipods, Blackberry telephones). Watch this space!

If you’re revolted by the tobacco companies’ marketing tactics, or if you’d like to know more about what’s going on and transform your ideas into actions, visit the Take Action section, which has plenty of information to inspire you.

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