Monday, 13 August 2012

Crappy packaging for fags

First we had the introduction of health warnings followed by the banning of cinema and press advertising. Now the government is looking at following the Australians and introducing standardized plain packaging for all cigarette brands.

The tobacco industry not surprisingly is up in arms. While most people seem to think that it won't make a jot of difference, the fag makers fear the worst. Packaging is, after all, the last vestige of sophistication that this industry can cling on to. If this goes, then surely cigarettes will be sunk forever. Personally, I think they do have grounds for worrying, because image for this lot has always been everything. Though health warnings are now emblazoned in large type, the packaging still looks and feels classy, desirable and expensive; that's because it is. Silk varnishes, foil blocking and embossing, along with the services of leading design agencies, don't come cheap.

Way back in the 80s when I first became interested in advertising, I remember visiting Collette Dickenson Pearce in the Euston Road and being shown the agency showreel on the agency's very own big screen. If memory serves me right there were two cinema commercials for cigarettes. One for Benson and Hedges was shot by Ridley Scott in the Arizona Desert, and featured frogmen opening a giant sardine tin-like cigarette pack in a swimming pool. It was part of the award-winning surreal campaign that never failed to silence popcorn munching audiences at the local flea-pit. The other was equally effective: an amusing spoof testimonial set amid the battle of Rorke's Drift with zulus and redcoats being speared left, right and centre. They were brilliantly effective ads because they made the brands captivating, witty and sophisticated. To young audiences, cigarettes were clearly shown to be cool. And the sales figures corroborated this.

Since the banning of cigarette advertising, the number of teen smokers in the UK has halved. It's a pretty impressive statistic. The anti-smoking lobby believes firmly that this has everything to do with the advertising ban. There are those representing the pro-smoking lobby though who will tell you otherwise. They'll argue that it has more to do with education and the fact that we're all so much better off than we used to be. I don't believe this for a moment. Tobacco companies spent millions on advertising and packaging because they knew full well that it guaranteed their future by making cigarettes look sophisticated to the young.

Interestingly, my 18-year-old daughter takes the view that placing cigarettes in plain brown packaging will give them a kind of cult status in the same way as any banned substances will appeal to those who want to stick two fingers up at the establishment. I suppose it's just possible, but I can't see this having mass appeal. 

I think if I were the minister for health I'd ban the use of the word 'cigarettes' and insist that fag makers used the term 'cancer sticks' instead.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

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