Analysis: A tough time ahead for tobacco company PROs

PROs hoping the incipient ban on tobacco advertising will lead to a boom in brand-based cigarette PR are going to be disappointed. But manufacturers can still work to maintain their corporate presence in the public eye, says Andy Allen

Analysis: A tough time ahead for tobacco company PROs
Analysis: A tough time ahead for tobacco company PROs

Now that the tobacco industry's advertising spend in Britain and the EU has been largely thwarted by legislation, PR agencies may be wondering whether they have any chance of becoming the new recipient of some of that marketing cash.

In Britain, a ban on cigarette advertising becomes law on 14 February, ending 100 years of occasionally classic advertising. The imminent ban has led at least one major manufacturer to go for a last legal ad blitz.

Even though the EU has agreed its own measures, health secretary Alan Milburn has vowed to press ahead with UK laws, which in most cases are considerably stricter.

As the anti-smoking lobby claims, the tobacco industry will now apparently be forced into thinking of new ways of attracting 500,000 smokers a year to replace deceased consumers.

While at least part of tobacco's ad spend - estimated in the UK at over £20m this year - may now be channelled into PR, the ban leaves little room for brand-related marketing. TV and radio ads are already banned, while February sees the start of bans on the promotion of tobacco via posters, press and websites. Further measures to come into effect on 14 May will stop promotions at point-of-sale, direct marketing and in-pack schemes such as coupons. By 2006, sports sponsorship will also be illegal.

Ironically, the man who introduced the UK Tobacco and Advertising Promotions Act is a PR practitioner by trade. Liberal Democrat peer Lord Clement-Jones, who introduced the private member's bill in the Lords last year before it gained government support, is also chief executive of public affairs firm DLA Upstream.

In Clement-Jones' view, any loopholes tobacco manufacturers find are likely to be swiftly closed, leaving corporate communications activity as the only avenue left open to them.

For example, brand-stretching - branding clothing and other products with cigarette logos - has become increasingly common in the industry as firms seek to avoid marketing restrictions. But the peer's view is that any attempt 'to drive wedges into the legislation' by such means will prompt demands for further laws.

So the only PR activity that can never be subject to special restrictions as long as tobacco is legal - 'creating a halo around the corporate reputation' - is set to increase, with an emphasis on CSR activity.

Tim Lord, CEO of the Tobacco Manufacturers' Association, agrees that virtually no kind of brand activity will be open to manufacturers once the new law is in force, though he points out some elements of the law have yet to be clarified.

British American Tobacco press relations manager David Betteridge says that while corporate PR appears the only place left for tobacco firms to explore, corporate comms specialists shouldn't get too excited just yet. He points out while BAT is the world's second largest tobacco firm, unlike its portfolio of brands such as Dunhill, Rothmans and Lucky Strike, it attracts almost zero recognition among smokers. He says therefore that efforts put into corporate comms have, at this stage, only limited value.

But he doesn't rule out increased efforts on corporate comms as part of a general trend, especially as, in his words, 'anything from business to consumer will be out' under the new laws.

Pointing out that BAT was this summer the first tobacco firm to publish a social report, he says creating 'clear blue water' in reputation is increasingly important: 'The industry has more ground to catch up than most' in comms. As a result BAT has started to roll out social reporting in the 180 countries where it does business.

Other tobacco firms are reluctant even to discuss what will happen after the ban comes into effect. UK market leader Imperial Tobacco merely stated that it would be 'business as usual' until the 14 February deadline.

Anti-smoking group ASH is more keen to make its views felt. Despite ASH's criticisms of EU laws for not going far enough, research manager Amanda Sandford says there will be little firms can do in PR terms to make up for the ad ban in the UK. She says devices such as Rothmans Royals' recent 'pub quiz' - which involved contestants writing in to the company with their details - may get past rules forbidding direct marketing, but that such (perfectly legal) loopholes will not remain open for long.

Nor are some of the more imaginative marcoms tactics used in the past likely to cut much ice with regulators. BAT's Citygobo.com nightlife website, for example, which pointed users in the direction of places where tobacco was on sale without carrying any indication it was run by BAT, attracted hostile coverage once it was 'outed' by ASH. In Australia a similar attempt by Philip Morris with its website Wavesnet was shut down soon after launch.

The firms protest these sites are guides to nightspots that sell competitor products as much as their own. But ASH has promised to be on the lookout for similar tactics and wonders if they will be worth the trouble for the tobacco firms, given the negative PR implications. Whatever the money involved, PR firms planning to get involved with tobacco should ask themselves the same question.

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