Softly lit or blunt, 'less toxic' cigarette ads hint at health

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We've come a long way, baby.

Seems like just yesterday the heads of all the Big Tobacco companies were seated at the congressional witness table lying their sleazy asses off about what they knew-regarding disease and addiction-and when they claimed not to know it.

That was then, however. This is now. Having been slapped silly by litigation and regulation, Big Tobacco seems to be having a change of heart. Anyway, Medium Tobacco is. The likes of Philip Morris are on the sidelines so far, but two less-dominant players are making an astonishing move. Instead of pretending that cigarette smoking isn't an addictive menace, they are looking at the century-old public-health disaster for what it is:

A marketing opportunity! Because:

1) People like to smoke. It's satisfying, relaxing and it gives you something to do with your hands.

2) Many people don't want to die a painful, lingering death by lung cancer.

3) While some smokers are in denial about the risks, others are fearful but too hooked to quit.

4) The cigarette business is so obscenely profitable, and the demand is so ever-present, it would be crazy not to exploit the rare combination of health-concerns and nicotine addiction.

The solution: a next-generation "light" cigarette. You know, something like, Now 70% carcinoma free! or Tastes Great! Less Killing! Ha ha. As if anybody would use taglines so blunt. No, the actual brands in test market are advertised thusly:

Brown & Williamson's Advance: "All of the taste...Less of the toxins." And Vector Tobacco's Omni: "Reduced carcinogens. Premium taste."

As God is our witness. Those are the actual slogans, because apparently "Killing you softly" has copyright protection. But if it all sounds like something out of "Saturday Night Live," there is every possibility that one or both of the new brands will engender an entire category. In fact, barring government intervention, Ad Review is certain that the low-toxin segment will eventually dominate the industry.

If Omni alone were being tested, that wouldn't be the case. The direction taken by Trone Advertising, High Point, N.C. (remember Joe Camel?), is to create generic cigarette advertising that mentions, in its brief copy, the product claim: "Introducing the first premium cigarette created to significantly reduce carcinogenic PAHs, nitrosamines and catechols, which are the major causes of lung cancer in smokers."

That may sound direct, but what dominates each of six executions is the artwork, the typical selection of idealized models in pastoral settings looking smart and confident and warmly lit as they suck on their new Omni death sticks. If the goal was to set this brand apart from the existing "light" segment, this campaign fails completely. And lacking any explanation or support for the claims, the mere mention of carcinogens will cause more alarm than it allays.

Not so the Advance campaign.

Employing a strategy right out of "Ogilvy on Advertising," Fitzmaurice, Lewis & Partners, Louisville, Ky., makes a case that both informs and persuades, bursting onto the scene with a disarming display of near-candor, beginning with a long-copy ad headlined "Is it really possible to make a `better' cigarette?"

"For those who are staunchly anti-tobacco, the answer is-and always will be-no," the opening copy replies. "But technology is an amazing thing." The next 18 paragraphs go on to detail the novel "trionic" filter and tobacco-curing innovations that dramatically reduce formaldehyde, tars and carcinogenic nitrosamines. Nobody ever went wrong assuming cigarette makers are lying through their yellow teeth, but if the comparisons to chemical levels in existing light brands are accurate, it sure sounds like a better cigarette to us.

That, of course, is exactly what worries anti-smoking groups, who fear that credulous smokers will navigate from the saving beacon of abstinence to the false comfort of dubious low toxicity. And many smokers will do just that, despite explicit (and equally dubious) discouragement in the advertising. "There is no such thing as a safe cigarette," reads Advance's boilerplate disclaimer, "nor is there enough available medical information to know if ... less toxins will lower health risks."

In their totality, of course, the ads ask you to leap to the opposite conclusion.

It's an interesting case. But considering that cigarettes continue to be a legal product, Ad Review for now will have to swallow our bile, and well-earned distrust, and throw in with the conclusion of the Advance ad:

"Sure sounds like a step in the right direction."

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