Manipulating public perception

Tobacco companies are savvy about the power of branding

pexels-photo-132340In 1952 the first paper was published linking smoking with death. About 50 years later governments around the world started to ban smoking advertising from TV, billboards and sporting venues. Then, eventually, after a few years more had passed by, some governments eventually banned smoking in public places.

The UK government was thinking about introducing plain packaging for tobacco products but  is dragging its heels even though Australia has led the way and some evidence indicates that this could help stop the rise in smoking in young people. But the cigarette box is not an advert, the tobacco industry argues. Surely people are not conned into smoking just by the design, the colours, the layout. It’s just a box.

Michaela Dewe – my PhD student at the University of Surrey – has published an analysis of 240 print adverts randomly selected from the years 1950 to 2000 that appeared in the UK. The findings are pretty clear. Early adverts focused on men, women (even children), fun, health and the outdoors and the box was pretty much absent. 

But in later years as policies began to limit their advertising possibilities the box became more and more present; a dominant feature in the ads. So by the time all they had left was a box, everyone everywhere knew what each hint of colour or flash of word meant and the branding was complete. 

The cigarette box has become iconic to each manufacturer and without realising it smokers have become walking adverts for the brand they smoke.

So can these boxes encourage people to change brands, to smoke more or even to start? We don’t know and have no hard evidence in our favour. But walk round any town centre and see how many people wear the adverts for their favourite brands splashed across their chests or stamped on the side of their trainers. “Gap”, “Superdry”, “Nike”, “Adidas” to name but a few, know that getting their consumers to be branded is far better advertising than a static billboard or a briefly flashed TV advert. Some people are seen as “cool”, “my age”, “at my school” and others will buy into what they buy. 

It seems obvious to me that they will also smoke when they see others smoking and chose the brand that “people like me” are smoking.

Our research doesn’t show that a branded box changes behaviour. But a bit of common sense and a quick wander around the streets, while pondering the question “why don’t the tobacco industry want plain packaging”, seems a pretty good indication that it probably does. 

Likewise, an Australian study has found that the introduction of plain packaging has resulted in smokers perceiving their cigarettes as less satisfying and of lower quality than previously. The cigarette box is a form of advertising, and the tobacco industry knows this. The government should therefore ban them and introduce plain packaging. 

Jane Ogden is a  Professor of Health Psychology at the University of Surrey. This article was originally published on The Conversation.