A number of revelations have surfaced recently about the activities of Big Tobacco companies in markets across the developing world. One investigation by Reuters revealed how Philip Morris International has been targeting young people in India through colourful adverts and promotions at clubs and parties in large cities like Delhi. In Uganda, British American Tobacco has won a legal battle to limit the expansion of health warnings on packets and point-of-sale displays.
For those who have studied the history of the tobacco industry, these tactics will come as no surprise. In the developing world, Big Tobacco seemingly is replicating the advertising strategies which it first carried out in countries like Britain more than 60 years ago.
Public health efforts in Western countries have proved effective in changing the law and stubbing these out – and subsequently boosting the decline in smoking rates. It is this experience that has made some tobacco companies so determined to fight against similar public health measures in the developing world.
A historical perspective, then, can be useful in illuminating their strategies, helping to explain why the tobacco industry is so protective of its marketing activities.
Cigarettes are a fairly standardised product. There are only a few properties that can be altered to distinguish one brand from another, which is why advertising is so important. It’s through marketing and advertising that different brands distinguish themselves in what remains a crowded marketplace.
This was particularly apparent in the UK in the 1950s and 1960s, when the British tobacco industry resumed advertising cigarettes following a lull in sales during the period of rationing that trailed World War II. Powered by the developing techniques of market research, tobacco companies began tailoring their promotions to specific demographics.
In particular, studies of the motivations of consumers in the mid-1950s emphasised how important young people were for cigarette manufacturers. Market research for John Player & Sons and Imperial Tobacco, for example, found that: “The maintenance and stability of the cigarette market depend in large measure on the constant recruitment of youth (age 15–23, roughly) to the cigarette smoking habit.”
To do this, admen suggested a host of advertising themes and promotions which they thought would appeal to young people. They talked about a brand having a particular “atmosphere” or “identity”, and marketing activities were designed to enhance this.
For instance, the tobacco manufacturer WD & HO Wills introduced a new filter-tipped brand in 1960, Strand cigarettes. Adverts featured a lone figure – the Strand man – stalking around a city at night, smoking. The tag line went: “You’re never alone with a Strand.”