Until recently, he and his Liggett Group had been the very junior partner in tobacco's grand alliance, that pact to fight product liability lawsuits and new marketing regulations to the bitter, bitter end. No quarter given; no quarter asked.
That's all changed now, of course. Mr. LeBow's dramatic settlement with the "enemy" commits Liggett to long-term but modest payments, based on profits, to help defray the costs of stop-smoking programs and state Medicaid fees for treatment of smoking-related illnesses.
He also agreed to significant new curbs on cigarette marketing sought by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and cheerily says he's arranged it so his tobacco colleagues-except for Philip Morris Cos.-can get the same terms.
Mr. LeBow, however, is hardly the Pied Piper who will lead tobacco marketers to the peace table. In fact, he's not a brand marketer at all, but a financier whose single-minded goal is to take control of RJR Nabisco Holdings. Liggett's remaining brands (such as Eve and L&M), have no ad agency and Mr. LeBow spent all of $16,000 on measured media last year, according to Competitive Media Reporting.
Corporate self-interest, not high principle, motivated Mr. LeBow. He gives away marketing rights that mean little to him, but much to others-including those in the ad industry who take unpopular stands in defense of tobacco advertising.
In the end, if there is an end to this fight, the rest of the tobacco industry will ultimately act out of self-interest. Tobacco is the industry, after all, that 25 years ago walked away from TV and radio advertising while others were willing to fight that ad ban.
Mr. LeBow's calculating move should remind tobacco's ad industry allies that First Amendment principles don't always carry the day when other business imperatives seem more compelling.
Twisting an advertiser's theme to create a negative instead of a positive message is a handy device for groups attacking the product. Anti-smoking groups depicted the Marlboro cowboy as an emphysema sufferer; the Absolut vodka art was distorted by anti-alcohol groups; and PETA-People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals-copied well-known fur coat advertisements.
Perhaps that's the penalty for creating brilliant ad-vertising. No one would be interested in knocking off a lousy ad. So the milk industry wasn't surprised when it's "Milk, what a surprise" print campaign featuring milk mustaches on celebrities inspired a number of knockoffs from unrelated advertisers.
But sometimes the copycat ads are real clunkers. A fine example is the latest PETA effort. It does a takeoff on the "Milk, what a surprise" campaign. In it, PETA put a yellow mustache on comedian Sandra Bernhard above the line, "Urine, what a surprise." PETA's beef is that Wyeth-Ayerst Labs uses urine from pregnant horses in its post-menopause drug, to the detriment of the horses and their foals.
The milk industry becomes an innocent bystander here. It's not the object of PETA's wrath, unless milking machines are on their hate list. Yet PETA makes the association of milk with urine, surely not a milk marketer's dream. It's a cheap shot, substituting creative thievery for a legitimate message.
Maybe members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Advertising should throw ink on anyone connected with that stupid ad.