Before there was Caitlyn Jenner, there was Marlboro.
When it was introduced in the late 1920s, Marlboro was a woman’s cigarette — “Mild as May,” said the ads. Ads showed glamorous and fashionable young women smoking. Marlboro left the market during the war. But in the 1950s, scientists began associating cigarettes with cancer, and smokers flocked to supposedly safer filtered cigarettes. To combat the view that a filter was for sissies, Philip Morris needed a new, masculine filtered cigarette. The company took Marlboro and fitted it with a filter — and a cowboy.
The success of Marlboro’s gender reassignment shows the importance of brand imagery and advertising. With cigarettes, they are practically all that matters. The vast majority of smokers start when they are young, and virtually none start because they like the taste, or the product itself. It’s the image: Smoking makes them feel defiant, feel cool. Young people create a self-image with their cigarette brand.
This is why it’s significant that Britain has just adopted something Australia has been doing since December 2012: unbranding the pack. And the latest evidence shows that it is working in Australia. Plain packaging was recommended in the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the world’s first public health treaty, which was adopted in 2004 and now has been signed by 180 countries. I wrote about Australia’s plans to start plain packaging in 2012, but now the idea is taking off. France and Canada may be next; several other European countries, along with South Africa, Singapore, New Zealand and Chile, are taking steps.
Although everyone calls it plain packaging, standard packaging would be more accurate. The packs aren’t plain at all — they are covered with garish photos of smoking-related illnesses — blobs of tumor, diseased heart muscle and rotted toes, along with haunting pictures of young cancer patients on their deathbeds.
They are standardized in the sense that all brands look the same. The parts of the pack not covered with pictures of diseased tissue are an unappealling green-brown called Opaque Couché — which won the title of “ugliest color” in surveys of Australian smokers. It was perhaps the first time anyone asked market researchers to come up with the packaging most likely to drive away customers. (The government at first referred to the color as “olive green,” but the Australian Olive Association objected.)
The only way to tell the cigarette brand is to find the name in small letters in a standard font on the pack front.
“There is nothing promotional about that pack any more,” said David Hammond, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo who has advised several tobacco-control initiatives, including the British plain packaging project. “It’s an unequivocal message that this is a dangerous product and not a lifestyle product.”
Cigarettes enjoy the most brand loyalty of any product. Teens, moreover, are more heavily swayed by brands than adults. They choose a brand when they first start smoking, and only 10 percent of smokers switch brands in any year.
Curiously, this brand loyalty comes despite the fact that many smokers can’t identify their brand just by smoking. When states’ attorneys general sued the tobacco companies at the turn of the century, the giant settlement produced a trove of internal tobacco company documents, which have been cataloged and archived. One analysis of cigarette advertising from British American Tobacco (the author and year are unknown) concluded that “one out of every two smokers is not able to distinguish in blind (masked) tests between similar cigarettes,” and that “for smokers and especially for the decisive group of new, younger smokers, the consumer’s choice is dictated more by psychological image factors than by relatively minor differences in smoking characteristics.”
A cigarette’s taste matters — but perceptions of taste are also shaped by the brand. People rate the same cigarettes differently when they come in different packages. The same cigarette tastes much better in a branded pack than in a plain one. There’s an existential question here: Is a Marlboro in a plain pack even a Marlboro? For many smokers, the pack, not the cigarette, makes the brand.
Tobacco companies have fewer and fewer ways to tell people about their brand. More than 100 countries ban some kinds of cigarette advertising, and several countries ban all of them. The United States is not among the strictest. Cigarette ads on television and radio have been banned for 45 years, and more recent bans cover billboards and sponsorship of events.
What’s still legal is print advertising in publications with no youth readership, and store displays, including the pack itself. “If all you have left is the pack, then you have innovation in the packaging,” said Matthew Farrelly, senior director of the Center for Health Policy Science and Tobacco Research at the North Carolina-based research group RTI. “Point of sale in the U.S. is really the last frontier.”
So tobacco companies concentrated their efforts on the pack. An internal memo from the Brown & Williamson tobacco company in 1979 said that under conditions of total ban “an objective should be to enable packs, by themselves, to convey the total product message.”
Packs are powerful enough to do it. Unlike packaging for many other products, people carry around the cigarette pack and use it over and over. Tobacco companies have deliberately made packs that have to be removed from pocket or purse to get a cigarette. Smoking requires flashing the pack before your friends: taking it out of your purse, throwing it down on the bar. The pack is what advertisers call a badge — something you wear that tells people who you are.
“It’s similar to carrying around a bottle of beer,” said Farrelly. “The brand you choose is one expression of your identity. I’ve heard anecdotal stories that smokers will buy cheaper brands during the week and buy premium brands on the weekend when they’re at bars.”
Cigarette packaging is also used to mislead. (This is hardly unique to cigarettes, but the stakes are higher.) The word “light” is no longer allowed in the United States or European countries (light cigarettes are actually no safer than other smokes), but tobacco companies still use light colors to give the impression of mildness and safety. Some packs use terms like “organic,” “natural,” “additive-free” or “100 percent tobacco” — code words that imply (misleadingly, in this case) that they are “healthier.” Other brands promise to help keep women thin — the most overt being “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.” Manufacturers also alter the pack to connote slimness. Virginia Slims, for example, come in a tall, thin box.
Plain packaging is designed to stop the pack from making a statement or conveying wrong information. It also seeks to reduce cigarettes’ appeal. Minors, especially, find the plain packs to be ugly — decidedly not something they want to flash to their friends.
Another goal is to make health warnings on the packages more effective, since the warnings take on more visibility and importance when they don’t compete with branding. In addition, plain packaging reduces the utility of store displays as a sales tool.
One indication of the power of plain packaging is the ferocious barrage of lawsuits that tobacco companies unleashed against Australia’s law. They have sued in Australia, in the World Trade Organization and in Britain to block implementation. So far, they have not won a case.
When the British High Court upheld plain packaging in May, its ruling included a minute dissection of the evidence presented by both sides, and the judge’s conclusion that the tobacco company’s evidence fell “below acceptable standards.” It was “almost universally prepared without any reference to the internal documentation or data of the tobacco companies themselves,” he wrote, adding that it “either ignores or airily dismisses the worldwide research and literature base which contradicts evidence tendered by the tobacco industry.”
Vast numbers of studies have shown that plain packaging should work. (Here, here and here are three compilations of the evidence.) But plain packaging has a track record only in Australia, so that’s the only place to see whether it does work. This question is complicated because plain packaging was introduced alongside new tax increases and health warnings on cigarettes. In addition, it’s a long-term strategy, which should increase in impact as brand associations weaken over time and young people grow up without promotional images.
Nevertheless, there has already been an effect. Adolescent smoking in Australia has hit a record low. The government’s official review of the law, published in February, concluded that packaging changes strengthened a decline in general smoking prevalence by just over one-half of one percentage point, producing millions of dollars in savings each year. The review also said that the policy’s impact on smoking would likely grow over time.
How about the United States? It doesn’t even have graphic warning labels, thanks to industry lawsuits. (See a Fixes column about soda, alcohol and tobacco warning labels here.) More than 80 countries use graphic labels, and there is overwhelming evidence that they work, but in the United States, cigarette packs still carry only ineffective chunks of 30-year-old text on the sides. The tobacco companies’ winning argument was that the labels went beyond factual information into antismoking advocacy, and that violated their First Amendment rights.
The United States is perhaps unique in the degree to which it protects free speech, but there might be a workaround: do plain packaging without the graphic warning labels. Packs would be truly plain — just a boring greenish-brown box with a few lines of text. After all, it’s not just the health warnings that make plain packaging work. It’s also that plain packs turn a cigarette into a commodity, stripped of its ability to make a statement about the smoker.
How many teens would start to smoke if sometimes a cigarette is just a cigarette?