Commentary

Branding Tobacco

A decade ago, tobacco companies made the almost-fatal mistake of ignoring a certain branding audience. These companies were some of the best at product marketing and brand management, but they failed to understand that there was also a political audience.

Decades of indulgence seemed to make tobacco executives feel immune to legal realities. An almost untarnished record of court victories in product liability claims made them feel invulnerable, but they misunderstood that this success was dependent on two things: that the jury pools not perceive that tobacco companies have been systematically deceitful and that the cases remained in the world of civil litigation. As congressional testimony and civil court case discovery documents began to pile up, however, the structure tipped over.

In the end, the tobacco companies were branding the wrong thing. They needed to shift their messaging from product branding to corporate branding. And they needed to show a sincerity by proving themselves willing to put forward the most damning evidence of past deceit - rather than having it tortured out of them by civil discovery - in order to prevent the political landslide that still may prove their undoing.

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Aside from the bajillions of dollars with which the various states and the federal government have settled in return for not suing tobacco companies completely out of business, a new and devious pallor has been painted over the industry. The thing that seems to stick in the craws of tobacco executives the most is the fact that what they do on a day-to-day basis has ceased to be respectable. That lack of respectability affects not only executives who can no longer hide behind a patina of "marketing," but also - and more to the point - has a great effect on jury pools in the many civil litigations running through the tort system.

The branding being done against tobacco seems to tobacco executives to have little to do with preventing the spread of smoking and more to do with convincing jury pools that the companies are the lying spawn of Satan, hoping to profit by exploiting your children.

In an enlightening twist to the big tobacco settlements, several companies are suing several government anti-tobacco advertising bureaucracies for using the settlement funds on messaging that attacks tobacco companies rather than tobacco products. It seems that they may have woken up to the political implications of the branding.

They maintain variously that this is unfair or against the conditions of the settlements. But advertisers in teen markets will tell you that one of the best ways to get an anti-tobacco message across to this audience is to attack the tobacco companies. It seems that one of the most effective ways to keep a teen from smoking is to make him think that he's a chump of the tobacco companies if he starts. That an unintended consequence of this type of advertising happens to be that jury pools loath tobacco companies doesn't seem to bother the advertisers very much.

This makes me think that the tobacco companies may have a tough time winning the case, but then again, these governments and agencies may not be eager to spend the litigation funds necessary to defend themselves. It would be much easier to adopt friendlier - and perhaps less effective - messaging. The new rounds of creative coming out of the various anti-smoking campaign agencies will be watched closely by both sides.

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