Sunday, 22 May 2011


Finally, the truth. Why does it take so many advertisers so long to realize that the best advertising is the truth? It doesn’t have to be the whole truth, nor indeed does it have to be nothing but the truth. You can embellish it, you can puff it up, you can even massage it (to within reason). But advertising is always going to be more powerful and persuasive when it has as its key selling point the truth. And equally, it is nearly always doomed to fail when it assumes that the consumer is stupid, and tries to bamboozle them with fibs and outright lies.

I hate smoking. I loathe the smell of it, and I find hitherto untapped reservoirs of homicidal rage welling up within me when somebody lights up in what I deem to be “my personal space” ie anywhere up to about a hundred metres away. It goes without saying that I am a “reformed” smoker. And it also goes without saying that I am utterly dismissive of those pathetic individuals who claim it is too hard to give up. All of which I mention only to point out that I am not inclined by nature to feel any sympathy whatsoever for the supposed plight of Big Tobacco as our government rightly seeks different ways to dissuade people from taking up or engaging in this vile habit.

I should also point out that I used to write cigarette ads. Some of my best friends still do, and good luck to them. They do it because they are professionals and because the product itself is legal, can be legally traded, and they work strictly within established government and industry guidelines.

But for the last few weeks I have rolled my eyes heavenward and muttered expletives under my breath every time I have heard the advertising campaign bemoaning the imminent Plain Pack legislation. First of all there was a bizarre kerfuffle over the colour “olive” – whether the new packs would be olive-brown or olive-green, and how this would affect olive growers. (Answer: it won’t.) Then things took a decidedly menacing turn for the worse, as the advertisers went down the fateful path of hyperbole and scare tactics. In a deep, doom-laden voice worthy of a horror movie trailer, a spate of radio ads sought to conjure up an apocalyptic vision of life on earth without branded cigarette packs. To a sinister musical soundtrack, we were warned that a plague of tobacco crazed drug dealers and cigarette smugglers would snatch our kiddies off the streets and prostitute them to violent Asian triads and mafia gangs that would spring up behind the counter of every local corner store or newsagent. Or something like that. The campaign was sponsored by a body called the Small Shopkeepers Association or some such spurious name, but it clearly had the yellowish fingerprints of the tobacco companies all over it. I didn’t really pay close attention because the moment I hear the tobacco retail industry warning about a “threat to our children” my inner hypocrisy metre starts flashing bright red and all receptive systems to my brain automatically shut down.

Things only got worse when David Crow, the CEO of British American Tobacco, got up at a media conference and informed the world that he was concerned that the plain pack legislation would lead to more people smoking. Huh? And, um, therefore you’re against it, Dave? The logic was tortuous, hypocritical, unbelievable and his confession (“I would tell my kids not to smoke because it says on the pack that its dangerous”) almost as nauseating as a whiff of Benson and Hedges on a clear Sydney morning.

David also trotted out the Ciggie Smuggler scare story: “This basically gives the smugglers a blueprint,” he said. “It says, look it's like a secret plan; dudes this is how it goes.” Perhaps he was hoping the more gullible consumer might confuse Cigarette Smugglers with People Smugglers, or at least assume they all came in on the same boat together.

So it was with some trepidation that I opened my Sydney Morning Herald this morning to see the new ad campaign from Mr Crow and his advertising agency, G2 - a subsidiary of Grey Australia.  (Interestingly, nobody at G2 was prepared to comment on the campaign when I phoned them, and in fact, you’ll be hard pressed to find any mention on their website or anywhere else that British American Tobacco is actually one of their clients. Most mysterious!)

As I flicked through the SMH pages I assumed I would see a continuation of the Cigarette Smugglers idea, which the creatives clearly felt had some resonance. Would it be a man with an eyepatch and a wooden leg sneaking the ciggies ashore onto a moonlit beach? Or would it be a dirty old man outside a kindergarten holding open his raincoat to entice our unsuspecting kiddies with a selection of counterfeit fag packs?

But no. I couldn’t believe my eyes. “What company would stand for this?” asked the headline, with a picture of a blank olive green (or was it olive brown?) fizzy drink can with the unbranded word Cola on it.  The legislation will “destroy brands that are worth millions if not billions of dollars” the ad informed us. And “no company would stand for having its brands taken away.”

Too bloody right. The truth, finally. This legislation will see the potential destruction of brands that have been legally built up over many years. Quite simply, this puts the spotlight squarely where it should be. This is a debate about the freedom of the marketplace, and the boundaries of government restrictions to legal trade. The government, in my opinion, has no right whatsoever to actively seek the destruction of brands that are legally traded in the marketplace.  Yes, it has every right to persuade people to choose not to smoke. And it has a duty to publicise the health risks of smoking, if for no other reason that relieving the pressure on the public purse of the exorbitant costs of treatment. It also has a duty to protect children, as it does with pornography, violent entertainment and other dangerous activities.

By all means, make smoking illegal. You’ll get no complaints from me. But if the government is not prepared to go down that path, then it has no right to wantonly destroy brands that abide by the law. And the companies and shareholders of those brands have every right to fight for their survival. For once, my sympathy lies entirely with the tobacco companies.

It’s amazing how powerful truth in advertising can be.

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