Big Tobacco: why you do this?

I’ve mentioned previously the Agree/Disagree campaign that has been running prominently in NZ media for the last month. It has been hard to miss, with many television spots in prime time every day, full page ads in newspapers, and radio placements too. The spend is enormous. The initial stated amount of “hundreds of thousands of dollars” is, a month later, clearly revealed as something of an understatement. (The equivalent campaign in Oz spent $4.5 million.)

The campaign, by British American Tobacco, is in opposition to government moves towards mandatory plain packaging of cigarettes. It argues that plain packaging is bad because it impinges on corporate right to use the brands they have carefully developed; and it hurts us on international trade, making us vulnerable to legal challenges for example. They also state that plain packaging just won’t make a difference. (That last point appears to be quite wrong; the science is developing towards a clear signal that plain packaging reduces smoking rates.)

The website itself is quite small and uninteresting (and a close match to the Aussie version). It has a statement of the argument, and reproduces their print, TV and radio ads. That’s it. Missing: any call to action, at all. Anyone who responds to these ads and actually visits the site will find a few bullet points and nothing else of interest.

After a month of this with no end in sight, the mystery of what BAT are trying to achieve remains unsolved. Why are they spending so much money, time, and brand capital on this campaign? As another blogger has put it, what is the point of all this?

It isn’t to persuade the public to accept their argument. This is unconvincing on two levels. First, it just isn’t going to work. Public support is never going to muster behind support for tobacco marketing (and branding is marketing, make no mistake on that) or the details of international trade. (If you want to get the massed public behind you, you need a better hook than this. Compare the recent Australia “nanny state” campaign.) Second, even if you do persaude the public – so what? How does that get you what you want? This matter isn’t going to referendum. Are you hoping all your new supporters spontaneously decide to lobby government on your behalf? That’s a ridiculous notion.

In fact, this whole campaign is so poorly conceived that it’s actively turning smokers against BAT.

So you have the deeply weird spectacle of an enormous, expensive public persuasion campaign that is not actually interested in persuading the public.

A further wrinkle has appeared since: BAT have hired a small team of people to go around NZ gathering signatures and discussing the plain packaging issue. They were out in Wgtn recently and a few of my friends were approached to sign a petition against plain packaging. What petition is this? Your guess is as good as mine. But a small team being flown around the country for a month aren’t going to get enough names to make much of an impact on anything. If the petition mattered, it would be online as well, wouldn’t it? So add to the weirdness above: a petition that has no interest in actually collecting signatures.

Clearly something isn’t what it seems here.

What else is at work? Chris Trotter suggests the spend isn’t aimed at the public directly, but at editors and columnists who are influenced by the dollars coming their way. That could be part of the mix, because getting editors and columnists on-side is certainly a way to influence political action in NZ. I find the notion that this is the core purpose of the exercise hugely unconvincing. (“Here’s the plan: we spend loadsamoney advertising our argument, and hope some influential columnists decide that’s a good reason to take up our cause, know what I mean?” “But can’t we just get pretty much the same result by taking out a few small ads and sending a personalised letter to the columnists who are inclined to support our point?”)

Look again at their core argument. IP issues? International trade concerns? These issues are not addressed with public marketing campaigns. They are pursued through direct lobbying to government, submissions to select committee, and corridor conversations with influential people.

And yet a big national campaign is what we have. What are they up to?

Here’s another explanation: BAT have gone mad. No, seriously. They are so terrified by the ongoing shift in public opinion that will destroy their business sooner rather than later that they are running around like headless chooks, not talking to each other, throwing any random thing they can at the wall and hoping to somehow connect with a hidden reset switch. It’s a satisfying mental image, but probably unwise to give it any credence…

Okay, looking at what they’re actually doing isn’t giving me any clear picture. How about starting from the other end – what should we expect them to be doing? Obviously, this is important to BAT and other tobacco companies. They are, presumably, terrified of a public-health domino effect. Australia has fallen, and we are primed to go next. Other smoking changes swept the world with great rapidity, e.g. smokefree restaurants and bars. They have to fight this one here, before it gets out of hand. They don’t have many options in how to fight, really. They can directly pressure decisionmakers (which is how things have traditionally been done) and they can try and keep public opinion on side so there is no appetite for change. Can this gigantic mess of a campaign really be their best shot at public opinion?

Comparing agree/disagree to BAT’s Aussie campaign is interesting. The framing is completely different. It’s all: “Will plain packaging cost the taxpayers billions? Will it make tobacco cheaper? Where’s the proof?” Here, incredibly, the ads all front up with “we accept smoking is harmful” and talk about fairness and debate on technical issues. It’s a fascinating switch-up by BAT and/or BAT’s creative agency G2 Sydney (who I presume did the Aussie version too). Some possible reasons: the Aussie version really, really didn’t work; the temperature of the NZ market was so different they felt a completely different angle was needed; they’re trying out a new strategy that might cross borders more effectively; they’ve adjusted their behind-the-scenes lobbying approach and wanted their public strategy to align with that; some new manager came into a senior role and wanted to stamp his authority on things by making a change. All of these are unedifying, and impossible to test or verify based on what we can see from the outside.

So where does all this leave us? I wish I knew. I’m no closer to understanding what on earth BAT think they’re doing. One thing is certain: this public campaign is not the whole iceberg. There will be a whole huge pile of hidden work going on – lobbying politicians will just be the start of it. (Keith Ng covered some BAT lobbying action last year.) And if this enormous public campaign is just to support that, just to provide a few anecdotes and the thin impression of public support to give lobbyists just that bit of extra edge on influencing policymakers? If that’s the case, be very afraid, because that suggests the war chest big tobacco has to call upon is much, much bigger than I would like.

One other thing. I would not be surprised if the online discussion around this issue was being infiltrated by paid fake commenters pushing the BAT line. The “discuss this!” line is being pushed hard (although, notably, not on the campaign’s own forum) and buying some sock puppets is a cheap way to get some real push on your messaging. It’d be nice if sysadmins at media sites kept an eye out for this, although it ain’t hard to make it pretty much invisible.

Insights from readers most welcome, because I am mystified by this whole thing.

2 thoughts on “Big Tobacco: why you do this?”

  1. I have to say I’m kinda leaning to the sockpuppety end as far as theories go.

    Someone started up a site called, because the BAT agreedisagree site seemed pretty much only interested in conversation that followed their pre-decided conclusions. They responded by immediately trying to shut it down even though it’s specifically non-partisan on the issue – which suggests to me that they’re not keen on unregulated debate on this stuff. I think they want to have the illusion of discussion, and are foolish enough to think they can genuinely control it in that way.

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