I think I’ve cracked it.
A few days ago I made a lengthy post about how the British American Tobacco “agree disagree” marketing campaign made no sense to me at all, at all, at all. Since then BAT has launched a third phase of the campaign, which is even weirder and less likely to be convincing and what the hell what the hell didgeridoo noise what the hell.
And as I thought about that and tried, again, to work out what on earth the advertising company & BAT think they’re doing, suddenly I came up with an explanation that makes sense to me. It might not be the truth, but at least it puts a comprehensible motive behind this apparently nonsensical marketing.
Here goes: they’re trying to rebrand the tobacco industry.
The advertisements to the mass NZ public, the petition, the Twitter stream, the stunted website – none of these are trying to convince people of the merits of the plain packaging case. That’s what the campaign claims to be about, but it just ain’t true. They know the NZ public isn’t going to take up pitchforks and demand plain packaging be tossed aside. A campaign to actually get the public behind you looks more like the one they ran in Australia, where it was all about your tax dollars being misspent and your neighbourhoods falling into ruin.
Nope. The purpose here is bigger. Consider the detail of this campaign:
- the name, “agree disagree” which suggests a willingness to engage and consider
- the upfront admission that smoking is harmful (this must be the largest sum of money ever spent by a tobacco company to frontload the message that smoking is bad for you)
- the technical nature of the arguments raised (IP ownership, international trade implications, legislative comparability between NZ and Australia)
- the “sophisticated” tone taken – the word “CREATE” which is firmly the symbolic territory of the liberal arts; the wine industry, or more pointedly, bottles of wine which is still the drink of the social elite
- the overall tone of restraint in voiceover, writing, general messaging – consider also the negative space where a more screechy, nasty campaign might be
- the sheer size of the campaign, which suggests that this is an issue that genuinely matters to them
Look at what comes through: we are considered, honest, clever, sophisticated, restrained, sincere.
Or: we are not your daddy’s tobacco industry.
They’re trying to position themselves as reasonable actors. This is the *exact opposite* of what they were doing in Australia, which was hitting very hard all the notes that would push for public outrage without worrying about how it made them look. That didn’t work.
So, where’s the value in this kind of rebranding? If they do it right, it will make a difference to their lobbying environment. The broad push will hit a lot of people, and they’ll forget the technical detail of what’s up but they will remember this: “it sounds to me like those tobacco companies are actually being pretty sensible”. The decisionmakers and politicians will get this message from the community, as well as being caught up in the saturation marketing themselves.
That means, when a BAT rep makes a phone call to a business lobby group and tries to get them to carry water on their behalf, the person on the other end is more likely to agree.
It means when Campbell Live has a face-to-face on the issue between a Green MP and a BAT rep, the public give the tobacco person a better hearing and response.
And it means, when a BAT representative stands up at Select Committee to talk through why this is a bad idea, the people on the committee are better disposed to listen.
All of this counts. All of this makes a difference. It gives them a better shot at keeping plain packaging out of NZ, and that’s the big prize. That’s why they’re doing this.
I like this explanation. It brings all the weirdness into a single line that pushes hard towards the only result that matters to BAT. It justifies the amount of money spent and explains why none of the elements do what they claim to be doing.
There’s one sticking point: as I’ve noted, the three technical arguments made are actually not very convincing at all. How does that help them? Well, it doesn’t help them, but it also doesn’t invalidate this explanation. You see, the reason the arguments seem meritless is because *the arguments are meritless*. They don’t have stronger ones to call on. It’s a bluff, but not the obvious kind (“these are great arguments, honest!”). No, the bluff is to argue in the style of a considered, sensible person, so people conclude you actually are a considered, sensible person.
BAT are taking a gamble, and if I’m reading it right then it is indeed smart and perhaps it’s their only shot left. With that all said: I still don’t think it’s going to work. I think plain packaging is going to happen here. Our society turned against smoking years ago, and this is just another way to show that.
(That petition I was puzzled about is still hard to read, but I’d guess it’s for two purposes, private lobbying and message refinement. In meetings they can say “We sent people out to talk to ordinary folks. They got X many signatures in only Y days, and told us A, B and C. Obviously there’s no appetite for this change.” At the same time, they can improve the way they talk about the issues based on feedback from their people on the ground.)