Tobacco Taxes Equals Mob

I used to be worried that corporate America was allowed too much power in political debates, but then Lorillard's new ad campaign about tobacco taxes came around and proved to me again that they are only their own worst enemies. Where I once feared that companies could drown out other, less-monied groups, I now realize that this presupposes that those companies are intelligent about their messaging efforts.

The latest corporate "please let go of that gun so I can shoot myself with it" ad campaign broke recently around the New York area, where tobacco taxes have become quite the temptation for state legislatures and municipalities. The ads feature a swarthy, ethnic man - I just don't know where to start - sneering at the camera in his best Sopranos look. Behind him is an open suitcase full of money. The copy reads, "When NYC raised cigarette taxes, who knew the real winners would be..."

I'd like to think that the subtext is that the cash represents the reward state legislators will get seeing the error of their ways, but I think that might be cynical. A more common reading seems to be that if one region raises taxes, the mob will move in to liberate tax-free tobacco from other states and illegally import it. It will be Prohibition all over again.



Which, I'll admit, is one heck of a creative message. By this logic, we should legalize drugs, prostitution, hard-sell brokerage phone banks, the Fulton Fish Market and the greater part of the New York City construction and waste industries.

The ads are running in my neck of the woods now, in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, three of the 29 states that have been rumbling about increasing tobacco taxes. Which brings up the interesting possibility that these three states increasing tobacco taxes may indeed have the effect of ruining the mob's business in smuggles cigarettes from Delaware. Follow the logic through, and it's a pretty good case for making some big tax hikes where they don't exist already. Maybe we should call up Connecticut and get them in on the act too. But I'll leave the political issues to the Lorillard "experts." I'm more concerned about the messaging issues.

Somewhere, located in some cubicle deep in the bowels of Lorillard, is a poor brand manager for Kent or Newport or another Lorillard brand, fuming at the fact that his "clean and bright" product is being smeared by the upper echelon in an extremely misguided political communication. He stayed through the cost cutting. Even when selling tobacco became about as popular as making bioweapons, he hung on there. The tobacco settlement didn't faze him. And now, his CEO implies that his product is proffered by the mob, along with love slaves, pirated DVDs and protection contracts. It just might be the last straw.

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