Lawsuits, Light Cigarettes and Fear-Based Marketing Strategies

Fear-driven marketing gets resultsThe Second Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals missed a great opportunity this week to hold the tobacco industry accountable for one of its worst marketing tactics -- positioning cigarette brands in response to smokers' medical concerns. The April 7, 2008, issue of the New York Times has an article about the dismissal of a huge, class-action lawsuit against the tobacco industry that was brought by smokers of "light" cigarettes who claimed they were misled about the relative safety of "light" cigarettes compared to regular, "full flavor" cigarettes. The suit, and its dismissal by the court, brought to mind a little-recognized tobacco industry marketing survival tactic that weighs heavily on the public's perception of exactly what "light" means.

The tobacco industry has long had a remarkable ability to rescue itself from damaging health claims by turning allegations against its products into marketing opportunities. Inside the industry, the fact that cigarettes cause widespread illness and death is referred to as the "smoking and health" issue, or "S&H issue" for short. Tobacco marketers consider "S&H issues" to be little more than "external marketing forces" that require re-positioning of products, through changes in advertising copy strategy, so that smokers will get an illusion of safety from the dangers they perceive.

Cigarette marketers refer to smokers who use "low-tar, low-nicotine" cigarettes as the "concerned segment" of the market. They market cigarettes to "concerned" smokers in ways that leverage their deep-seated, emotional fears about the damaging effects of smoking.

Dangers Drive Market Positioning and New Brand Creation

As twisted as it sounds, by publicizing more information about the specific dangers of cigarettes, public health authorities inadvertently provide the tobacco industry with endless new markets to exploit. In the 1950s for example, a Reader's Digest article exposing the dangers of tar in cigarette smoke created an industry bonanza after cigarette companies responded by adding filters to their cigarettes. Lorillard made a fortune by repositioning KENT as a "health protection" cigarette. Later, as information began to be released about "poisonous gases" in cigarette smoke, the industry advertised filtering gimmicks that promised removal of these gases. The strategy of using a health fear to drive cigarette sales is not peculiar to the U.S., but is also used on unsuspecting smokers in other countries. In 1983, Brown & Williamson implemented Project Lodestar, in which they utilized "alternate information channels" to "stimulate concern" among Kuwaiti smokers to drive Kuwaitis towards "low delivery" brands and increase sales of those brands.

A 1986 Long-Term Strategic Marketing Report by R.J. Reynolds is instructive on how cigarette makers can successfully react to a "S&H issue" that could otherwise sink its products. The plan says that the first step is for public health forces and the media to first do a thorough job educating the public about a specific cigarette-related health danger. This effectively herds fearful smokers toward the fortunate brand that has reacted quickly enough to position itself as "the appropriate alternative":

To significantly impact the [concerned] segment, an external S&H force must have widespread distribution. ...After the media creates concern on the part of smokers, the marketing efforts of the "lowest" brand should reinforce the fact that it has been named the "appropriate alternative."

Conning the Target

In discussing the appropriate copy strategy for effectively marketing to "health-concerned" smokers in a health crisis, the paper recommends crafting ads to have a pseudo-scientific appearance:

TONE: Very factual no nonsense approach. Should present OBJECTIVE information to allow the smoker to reach his own decision. Should be almost scientific looking, similar to pharmaceutical/precision equipment advertising. Choice of words and grammatical style should be consistent with offensive target's education level.

The report recommends literally "conning the target" with information, saying this is something the "lowest" smokers want:

The "lowest" target wants nothing less than to be conned with information, as information, in a way, is this smoker's reason for being.

Where other industries recall products that are proven to cause widespread harm, the tobacco industry reacts in quite the opposite way: by instead coolly using information about the harmful characteristics of its products as marketing tools to boost business.

If the strategy of leveraging people's fears to market a known dangerous product will not be exposed in a courtroom, it certainly deserves further attention through other channels.