In this essay, I will examine the ethical arguments concerning the banning of tobacco advertising as well as an evaluation of the social, economic and political pressures tobacco organisations face . In particular, I will explore the ethics of the partial bans on tobacco advertising, since there are now few countries which do not restrict tobacco advertising in some way. Part of the debate about the ethics of tobacco advertising involves consideration of ethical questions about advertising. Advertising is the attempt by owners of goods and services to persuade current and potential consumers to continue or start purchasing.
The intention of advertisers is, therefore, to portray products in ways that will maximise their desirability to potential consumers. Some commentators on the ethics of advertising have sought to draw a distinction between its informative and persuasive functions, arguing that pure ‘information’ in advertising (as said to be exemplified by classified advertisements and yellow page telephone directory listings) is ‘moral’ because it facilitates rational decision-making and choice. However, ‘persuasive’ advertising is argued to be unethical because, drawing on Kantian ethics, it affects consumers’ ‘autonomy’ by convincing them to purchase goods which they do not ‘need’. This argument has been severely criticised as resting on a false or simplistic dichotomies of wants and needs and of information and persuasion information can be highly persuasive, and the persuasive associations lent to a product by advertising can be argued to be as much part of the true ‘meaning’ or reality of that product
to consumers as its physical properties. Information in tobacco advertising? One of the cornerstones of the argument in favour of advertising generally is that advertising provides consumers with information about products and services being offered for sale. Classical economists argue that efficiency is optimised when all parties in an economic transaction have maximum information. The usual sorts of information exemplified in such arguments include price, the attributes of a product and notice of availability.
Does tobacco advertising provide such information and help facilitate choice? Mention of price is virtually absent in tobacco advertising, except at point of sale, where discounting is rampant in tobacco retailing. Descriptions of product yield attributes are common in advertising and brand naming, but these are frequently specious (‘fresh’), patently subjective (‘luxury’, ‘super’). Also, because many smokers block the tiny air vent holes with their fingers or lips, thereby greatly increasing the yields of tar and nicotine they inhale when compared to the smoking machine determined yields cited in advertising and on packs, cigarette advertising is in this respect arguably misleading. The argument that tobacco advertising provides information is thus largely bankrupt when examined against actual practice.
Some have argued that so-called ‘tombstone’ advertising showing only the cigarette pack with the product name ought to be considered a benign non-persuasive form of tobacco advertising which might be said to satisfy the basic criteria for ‘information only’ advertising. The assumption here is that tombstone advertising essentially is ‘here it is!’ advertising, informing consumers about the name of the brand, its packaging, the number of cigarettes in it, and sometimes the tar and nicotine yields.
Putting aside manipulative efforts such as Marlboro’s Belgian initiative during the 1980s of putting the picture of the Marlboro cowboy on the pack in anticipation of overcoming a move to tombstone advertising, it is fallacious to argue that pack-only advertising is somehow devoid of persuasive intent. A great deal of research goes into the selection of names, pack design and into the selection of seemingly bland words in the slogans that accompany pictures of packs. Every effort is made to make tombstone advertising as enticing as possible.
Deception through omission?
Another way of approaching the question of whether advertising is misleading is to ask whether there are aspects of a product which if omitted from advertising, would result in consumers being misled. For example, consumer protection laws in many countries insist that financial services advertising make explicit claims about terms of credit, so serious are the consequences for consumers should they be misled. The questions arising here concern whether there are fundamental issues about a product that should be mandatory in any advertising for it. With tobacco advertising, many argue that the risks of use are so high that, at very least, advertising should be accompanied by detailed health warnings worded so as to maximise their comprehensibility and resonance.
However, here many have pointed out the tobacco industry’s long record in constructing advertising designed to mock, distract and generally undermine such health warnings. In Australia in 1995, Rothmans modified its pack design after bold new warnings were introduced so that a warning on the front of the flip-top box such as ‘Smoking when pregnant harms your baby’ is accompanied by the contemptuous advertising slogan ‘Anyhow have a Winfield’ printed on the inside of the flip-top box.
This mockery has recently reached its apotheosis with the launch and promotion of Death cigarettes in the Europe. Here Death’s owners have turned health warnings into an ‘in your face’ gesture of proud defiance so that the risks of smoking are not only acknowledged, but held out as a badge of audacity, risk-taking and scorn on safe living. The advent of the Death brand illustrates perhaps more completely than all previous argument, the ability of advertising to appropriate virtually any appeal even a message overtly antithetical to the product and turn it into a marketing edge using the massive advertising budgets available to the industry. This ability would appear to transcend all guidelines and thematic restraints on advertising copy and hence act to largely neutralise the intent of health warnings for some people.
Some commentators have argued that the ethics of advertising should be inextricably linked to questions about the ‘goodness’ of the products being advertised. Leiser and Lee argue that ‘the advertisement of a bad product cannot be good’, with Leiser arguing that persuasive and seductive appeals can be ethically defensible if they have been put to the service of promoting beneficial ends (for example, using nostalgic appeals to country life to sell fruit and vegetables or using scare tactics to persuade people not to drink alcohol before driving). This emphasis on the product rather than on the way it is advertised is at the heart of all concern about tobacco advertising.
Critics of the RJ Reynolds’ Joe Camel cartoon character’s appeal to very young children have not been critical of the use of an anthropomorphic cartoon character in itself (cartoons have been often used to promote health), but rather of the use of the cartoon to promote Camel cigarettes to children. Critics of the use of sexuality to sell cigarettes are not generally opposed to sensual or erotic imagery, but to the use to which it is put: to make cigarettes seem attractive.