But suspicions are rising within the Hollywood community that the ads, far from being altruistic, amount to another big smokescreen from Big Tobacco.
The cigarette giant last week began a print push with headlines such as "Please don't give our cigarette brands a part in any movie" with text reading: "We appeal to, and encourage, those in the entertainment industry to eliminate depictions of our brands and brand imagery in their work." The ads encourage the entertainment industry to reduce or eliminate smoking scenes directed at youth.
"Movies have the power to amuse, delight, teach and inspire. However, some studies suggest they may also influence a child's decision to smoke," said Jennifer Hunter, VP, Youth Smoking Prevention and Cessation Support for Philip Morris USA, which was created in 1998 after the tobacco industry's Master Settlement Agreement with the states.
Industry experts, however, said Hollywood doesn't need Philip Morris' blessing to use such leading brands as Marlboro, Virginia Slims and Benson & Hedges in films, and without a more substantial effort-such as a legal threat-the campaign is useless.
"My initial thought is, it's an excellent campaign," said Linda Swick, president of International Promotions, a North Hollywood product placement specialist. "But then it becomes a question of whether Philip Morris is going to hold anybody liable for using their brand. If they really wanted to get aggressive, they certainly could make a huge impact with Hollywood so that [the industry] would not use their brands. But they're not saying, 'Do not use cigarettes at all,' they're just saying, 'Don't use our brand."'
There is one ad in the campaign, however, that is more generic, urging the industry not to depict smoking of any brand in film. "You have the power to help prevent youth smoking-just by losing one little prop," it says. The effort was created by WPP Group's Y&R Advertising, New York.
Philip Morris policy since 1990 has been to deny all requests for permission to use its brands in movies and TV shows intended for general audiences, making the timing of this campaign a bit curious. So why did the company decide to make such a push 16 years later?
A Philip Morris spokesman said that after the company spoke with "relevant stakeholders," including trade associations and public-health advocates, it decided an effective way to raise awareness of the 1990 policy of denying all requests for brand use was to "do a focused print campaign."
Due to the Master Settlement Agreement in 1998 that severely limited tobacco advertising, the idea of branded entertainment or product placement remains one of the few venues where cigarette makers can see their brands on display. The company acknowledges as much by saying it "can't stop all displays of our brands because federal and state trademark laws, as well as the U.S. Constitution, protect freedom of expression and the 'fair use' of trademarks in works such as movies and television shows."
That's another reason why some critics have charged PM's campaign is actually grandstanding. "Philip Morris' move doesn't make any difference unless Hollywood significantly scales back smoking in the movies or agrees to rate movies based on smoking," said Matt Myers, president of the Washington-based Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "The problem isn't which brand is shown, it's that Hollywood portrays smoking by kids who emulate those on the screen. Hollywood can't continue to act as if the problem doesn't exist or it has no responsibility."
Several groups have led past efforts to have Hollywood eliminate smoking in feature films. In four of the last five years, the Centers for Disease Control has cited tobacco in movies as a major factor in teen smoking.
Though Hollywood has made an effort to curtail lighting up in films-most of the mainstream movies have cut back on the practice, and smoking is mostly now seen in R-rated and independent productions-cigarettes are nonetheless a cheap prop, and they are an everyday product still used by 44% of Americans. The realism lends itself to films, can be easily explained as part of a story or character, and producers aren't as beholden to a company to provide that particular product, such as a car manufacturer.
contributing: t.l. stanley