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Plain cigarette packaging will change smoking… slowly

When it comes to branding and advertising, much of what we are exposed to creates only marginal difference. But even small differences can tip the balance toward a particular choice, and plain packaging…

Incremental measures have reduced smoking among men from 72% in 1945 to 21% in 2007.

When it comes to branding and advertising, much of what we are exposed to creates only marginal difference. But even small differences can tip the balance toward a particular choice, and plain packaging of tobacco products will make this kind of difference.

This is because small differences build up into larger differences, and in marketing, the game is all about increments rather than dramatic changes in behaviour.

So, if we are serious about reducing the number of smokers in our population, the removal of branding, logos and promotion on the packages of tobacco products is a small step in the right direction.

The nature of marketing

The role of branding and, more broadly, marketing has never been about making non-customers of a product become instant customers.

It’s much more subtle and complex. There’s certainly more to it than assuming that marketers only need to show a couple of ads, then sit back and wait for customers to buy their products.

This has a strong parallel with trying to get smokers to change their behaviour. The process is complex and incremental, rather than direct or immediate.

All marketing activity relies heavily on a range of tactics to move you toward purchasing particular products and brands.

In 2008, marketing professors Janet Hoek, Phillip Gendall and Jordan Louviere presented research at the Australia and New Zealand Marketing Academy Conference that found “tobacco brand imagery functions via respondent conditioning, where brand names, colours and other imagery become paired with psychological and emotional attributes. These peripheral cues act as heuristics that do not require systematic processing, but are implicitly relied on by smokers to move from their actual self to their desired self.”

That said, for any persuasive technique such as branding to work, we have to be goal-oriented. In other words, for a smoker to be converted into a non-smoker (or vice-versa), the desire for that behaviour must exist before marketing activity will work.

The problem we encounter is that factors leading to that desire are also quite complex. And that pre-existing desire can be influenced by other factors, the strongest of which is being motivated because a behaviour is normalised.

The changing face of Australian smokers

In 1945, 72% of Australian men were smokers - if nearly everybody around you is smoking, then taking up smoking is difficult to resist.

Then, the Robert Menzies’ government introduced a voluntary tobacco advertising code for television in 1966, and the Fraser government introduced legislation that banned cigarette advertising in 1976.

The normalisation of non-smoking had begun.

With the introduction of smoke-free public sector workplaces in the late 1980s, and private industry in the 1990s, it’s become very difficult for people to smoke and for others to take up smoking.

This is not just because it has been banned in work and public places, but also because of the social pressure that comes with the removal of smoking from everyday life.

By 2007, 21% of men and 18% of women were smokers.

Enter plain tobacco packets

The next step - the introduction of plain paper packaging - removes the capacity of the cigarette companies to brand their product.

On its own, this is unlikely to make hard-core smokers give up (I find it hilarious when news programs ask smokers if they will now give up smoking because of the new packaging), but as part of a continuing shift discouraging smoking, what we are observing is another kink in tobacco’s marketing armour.

Having been banned from undertaking any advertising, the major concern of the tobacco companies is that they are running out of promotion options.

And this is where the narrative becomes a bit silly.

The cigarette companies are saying the removal of branding will have no effect on consumer behaviour, while fighting to maintain branding on their products’ packaging.

Although, they argue that there is no evidence that plain packaging will have any impact on smokers, there is rigorous research – including that quoted above - that suggests otherwise.

Since 2005, a number of studies in the area of consumer behaviour have shown that generic packaging of cigarettes stimulate cessation attempts and deter smoking initiation.

Perhaps the tobacco companies only read research they commission themselves.

And there are further contradictions in their arguments. If packaging, plain or otherwise, doesn’t influence consumer behaviour, why threaten legal action against the government to keep ostensibly useless branding?

If it’s not important and doesn’t contribute to the corporate bottom line, then why spend shareholder dollars fighting it?

But the tobacco companies have given $5 million to underpin the Alliance of Australian Retailers to fight the proposals.

Their arguments that the proposals infringe international trademark and intellectual property laws also seem a little desperate.

The reason is plain packaging does influence consumer behaviour, and the tobacco companies know this. They are just not able to admit it.

Then again, the tobacco industry has always struggled to say it like it is.