Trillium News

Let's Get Phillip Morris to be More Self-Destructive(A)

If you don’t think we live in a bizarre world, you need to catch up with the latest contretemps over health and cigarette smoking.

Tobacco companies have become pariahs and the targets of numerous law suits from smokers and government agencies seeking to fill their coffers with cash settlements. As a former smoker, I have always been a little dubious about the claims brought by hardened smokers who said they were misled by ads because it seemed to me that one had to be blind, deaf and dumb not to be aware of the dangers of smoking.

In any case, for a number of years now Philip Morris, the industry’s biggest player, has turned over a new leaf, admitting that smoking cigarettes can be harmful and urging parents to warn their children about taking up this habit. They are no longer allowed to run television ads for cigarettes but they have crafted public service-like messages that talk about the dangers of smoking.

Go to the Philip Morris website and you will find statements such as the following:

“Philip Morris agrees with the overwhelming medical and scientific consensus that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema and other serious diseases in smokers.”

“Smokers are far more likely to develop serious diseases like lung cancer than non-smokers.”

“There is no such thing as a safe cigarette.”

“Philip Morris agrees with the overwhelming medical and scientific consensus that cigarette smoking is addictive.”

Hey, to me that’s pretty amazing. This may be the first time in the history of business that a company has been shamed into labeling its principal product as a potential killer. Philip Morris said that since 1998 it has spent $1 billion on campaigns to stop young people from smoking? How bizarre is that?

But wait, an editorial in the November 27th New York Times reported that studies by academics found that these campaigns have been ineffective, namely, they did not stop kids from smoking. In fact, the studies found that the more teenagers were exposed to the stop-smoking ads, the more likely they were to smoke.

Welcome to the world of advertising. It’s only people outside the advertising industry who believe that ads have magical powers to induce people to do what the advertisers want them to do. Many ads fail miserably to accomplish their mission. All the advertising in the world couldn’t sell the Edsel. And all the advertising the Gap is now doing has been unable to lure shoppers into its stores. For many years Hershey did very well without spending a cent on advertising. Consumer behavior is influenced by many factors beyond advertising.

But the New York Times is not having any of that. Its editorial suggested that the Philip Morris campaign may be a sham. It alleged that Philip Morris just isn’t trying hard enough with these ads. The company, said the Times, “is renowned for its marketing savvy. If it really wanted to prevent youth smoking…it could surely mount a more effective campaign to do so.”

So, Philip Morris, get back to your ad agencies, hit them over the head and demand that they come up with creative ways to undermine Marlboro and all the other brands sold by the company. We know you can do it!

One footnote to this bizarre episode. If you were sitting around at the beginning of the century, in January 2000, looking for a good stock to invest in for your children’s future, what should you have bought? Answer: Altria, Philip Morris’s parent company. Its share price is up 238 percent, biggest gainer among the 30 Dow Jones Industrial stocks. And how bizarre is that?