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September 10, 2012 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Brands for the Burning

Plain packaging and the demise of the romantic cigarette



I don’t smoke, but I do have a kind of affinity for Marlboro Reds. The logotype, with its toweringly tall ‘l’ and ‘b’, the white arrow pointing upwards, the textured red area that feels incredible to run your fingers over—packaging isn’t often this pleasurable. Most brand identities are pretty forgettable. Some aren’t though. There exists a small group of brand identities that have deeply embedded themselves in the public consciousness. 

Think of the glowing fruit on the back of your laptop, the swooshy tick on the side of your tattered running shoes, the bird on the corner of your paperback. But branding is perhaps most important to cigarette producers; they can’t traditionally advertise so differentiating themselves at the counter is crazy important. It isn’t exactly difficult to understand why they are so vehemently opposed to plain packaging.

Plain packaging is exactly what it sounds like. It is the proposal to make all cigarette packages look the same, in addition to the requisite varied grotesque imagery. The name of the brand is still printed on the package, but just that, and all in the same no-frills sans serif type. The Australian Government will implement it by 2013, after surviving a lawsuit from Big Tobacco.† Our Government, like many around the world, has endorsed the idea “in principle”, and the policy is currently in the public consultation phase.

The argument is basically that bright and attractive cigarette packaging pulls children into smoking, while established smokers know the brands they like and thus have no need for fancy logos. On the other side, Big Tobacco argues that their brands are valuable intellectual property, that “there is no evidence that plain packaging will stop children smoking.” Further, they argue that consenting adults have the right to be manipulated by pretty packaging. You have probably seen their huge advertising campaign, the full page newspaper ads and TV spots which “agree that tobacco is harmful,” but “disagree that plain packaging will work.”

It would be easy for me to get really heavy here. I could bring up my grandfather who smoked (died of unrelated causes) or despair over all my friends who smoke (I probably won’t know them in fifty years). I’d rather not; it’s not the point. The question is whether plain-packaging will work. I mean, if we do go down the road of plain packaging, why not go full on ‘ugly packaging’? I’m talking a dark purple backdrop with a mustardy brown Papyrus (Comic Sans is too kid-friendly) title. The colours aren’t exciting enough to attract children and it loses all the cool minimalist edge of regular plain packaging. You could stop design students smoking immediately.

Let’s look at the ad campaign. It must be all kinds of fun for the advertising executives who haven’t had anything to do with Kiwi tobacco in years. The ads are smart—there are no pictures of cigarettes or the like—just the word “create” in the process of creation with lines leading to a bald male (always a bald male) head. “If I create it, I should own it,” claims the ad, and that statement is hard to disagree with. Of course, Big Tobacco will still ‘own’ all these brands, they just won’t be able to use them in certain countries. This is kind of like me claiming that you don’t ‘own’ something China has banned. Claiming intellectual property is a good way to escape being pushed into a corner however; in 2012 you can’t argue that tobacco is not harmful and you can’t argue that your branding is not there to sell as much tobacco as possible either. There is an interesting kind of duality forced upon tobacco companies in this era, a catch-22 with which they must come to grips. They must both promote their product whilst telling people how horrible it is. They have no “drink responsibly” or “enjoy in moderation” to fall back on, they just try to play down the rotting foot hovering above their logo.

Branding is obviously most important at the point of purchase. I don’t have a whole lot of experience with this. The one time I have purchased tobacco (for a friend who had forgotten their ID), I mistakenly asked for ‘Parkway Drive’ instead of ‘Park Drive’, (a warning sign to double check my ID, surely) and I don’t remember looking at the packages at all. I do understand the power of brands with other disposable purchases however, when I consider the extent that I prefer Extra to PK even though I can’t taste the difference, my use of any deodorant other than Lynx, and how I immediately trust that Scrumpy is the cheapest just because it looks the cheapest. Brands aren’t always about telling you that a product is good—often the ‘cheapness’ is desired. Pak ‘n’ Save looks cheap and New World looks expensive, even though they are both owned by the same company and stock largely the same goods. This kind of false competition is lucrative.

Why bother having a range of cigarette lines aimed at varied demographics/lifestyles when they all look exactly the same? It’s hard to convey ‘sophisticated twenty something’ when you look exactly the same as ‘won’t break the bank.’ Here is what Big Tobacco is really worried about: not that fewer kids will start smoking, but that you’ll stop identifying in any way with your brand of cigarette, that the emotional connection will be lost. You won’t remember the fun you had smoking as a teen because this bland package of cancer looks nothing like your youth. The grotesque pictures make the assumption that smokers are worrying about their future, but taking away packaging removes an aspect of smokers’ pasts.

Every smoker in my super-scientific, eight-of- my-friends study, told me they smoked certain brands for the taste, not the packaging. People always see themselves as smart consumers, above the ordinary masses who make irrational purchasing decisions. A few of them, with some prodding, admitted they might switch to the cheapest possible brand. None said plain packaging would stop them smoking, although like all young smokers, they have vague plans to quit. Somewhat surprisingly, they were all for plain packaging, mostly “to stop kids starting,” notwithstanding the fact that they all began in their teen years. Non- smokers seemed more likely to be against it, often worrying that the “counterfeit” nature of plain packaging would only make them more appealing to children. I asked the smokers why they started smoking, and while many acknowledged the ‘it looks fucking awesome’ factor, this was always related to the actual smoking, not the package or purchase. Is there any way to fix the coolness factor of smoking itself? Should we regulate the appearance of actual cigarettes? Should I stop asking rhetorical questions?

The first scene of the first episode of Mad Men, which I have somehow avoided referencing until now, illustrates this perfectly. Don Draper asks “an Old Gold man” who smoked them in “The War” what would happen if Old Gold went out of business. He’s saddened at the prospect, but admits “I think I could find something new,” pausing, before adding: “I love smoking!” ▲

‘Big Tobacco’ isn’t just Aaron Eckhart, it generally means British American Tobacco, ( Dunhill, Kent, Lucky Strike, Pall Mall, Holiday, Freedom, Park Drive), Philip Morris (Marlboro, Longbeach) Japan Tobacco (Camels, Winston) and Imperial Tobacco (Drum, Horizon.) 


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