Tobacco industry marketing practices target youth

This is the first of a two part series on smoking, media and youth. Part II here.

Advertising is intentionally placed at young children’s eye level at retail sales locations, studies show.

I finally slogged through the 2012 Surgeon Generals’ report, “Preventing Tobacco Use Among Youth and Young Adults”  section on tobacco industry marketing practices. (Just 120 pages out of the 1395-page document.)

A key takeaway is that despite government restrictions that prohibit tobacco advertising and marketing to children and youth, the companies find ways to reach children in surprising ways, sometimes through the anti-youth smoking efforts they are required to fund. Tobacco companies are powerfully motivated to reach youth, as most people start smoking when they are young. Also, the tobacco industry knows that youth tend to be more brand loyal.

According to American Lung Association:  Among adults who smoke, 68 percent began smoking regularly at age 18 or younger, and 85 percent started when they were 21 or younger. So failure to reach youth means the end of the tobacco industry.
There is plenty of research on which messages work best to reduce youth initiation of smoking: Information on the serious health effects of smoking, along with analysis of the marketing and promotion practices of the industry –  in other words, Media Literacy education.

So what messages do you think the tobacco companies use when they spend money on anti-smoking initiatives?

Messages that THEY KNOW DON’T WORK.

According to the report, tobacco company-sponsored youth prevention ads performed poorly in terms of increased knowledge, perceived effectiveness, and influence on the intention to smoke, as compared with anti-tobacco ads sponsored by public health organizations.

In industry-sponsored anti-smoking promotion, they focus on themes that present smoking as a way to join the adult world,  stressing that smoking is an “adult choice” or “adult decision.” Tobacco companies are well aware that adolescents seek greater independence and to move toward adulthood.

You may remember the Philip Morris ad ostensibly directed at parents: “Talk. They’ll listen.” They pulled that one after a study found that it was associated with an INCREASED intention among youth to smoke. Researchers said that may be because messages portraying parents as authority figures tend to invite rejection by older adolescents.

It wasn’t a Philip Morris study. While the tobacco companies have done extensive research to figure out which messages don’t work to stop kids from smoking, their evaluation of the programs they launch is called “weak.”  The Surgeon General’s report, stuffed full of scientific findings, still has room for this sardonic gem: “The lack of substantive studies emerging from the tobacco industry on the actual effects of [anti-smoking] programs…contrasts sharply with the very detailed evaluations used for the company’s other marketing efforts, as was revealed during litigation.”

The tobacco companies also seek ways to improve their image, even within their own anti-smoking initiatives, as a substantial body of research has demonstrated that anti-tobacco-industry attitudes also reduce youth smoking. So marketing that takes the form of giveaways like book covers for schools that say “Think. Don’t Smoke,” with a tobacco company logo, tend to increase positive attitudes toward the company.  Also industry-sponsored retail level enforcement campaigns such as the “We Card” stickers – the ones you see on convenience store doors – has mostly led to improved industry image, not to decreased sales to youth.

Another marketing method that flies under the radar is discounting. Smoking among young people is more responsive to price than is smoking among adults, studies show. As a result, discount pricing strategies have become a major marketing expense, accounting for  approximately 84 percent of cigarette marketing and more than 77 percent of smokeless tobacco product marketing.

Here at Marketing Media and Childhood, we like to credit corporate responsibility when we see it. So here’s a little nugget deep in Chapter 5:
Harley-Davidson, the motorcycle maker, licensed its name to Lorillard Tobacco Company for cross promotion in 1993. But then Harley-Davidson became concerned about the influence of such marketing on youth.  So they commissioned a firm with expertise in child behavior to conduct an independent study of the likely appeal of Lorillard’s promotional campaign for Harley-Davidson cigarettes to children. The study found that the campaign would appeal to children and so Harley-Davidson backed out of the deal.

Next time: How smoking portrayed in movies influences youth smoking.


  1. […] This is the second of a two-part series on smoking, media and youth. Part I here. […]

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