So does branding really increase smoking?

Probably not actually:

Sales of the world-famous cigarettes, owned by British American Tobacco, reached 33 billion packets last year compared to 23 billion in 2007 when the show first aired.

Mad Men features New York ad agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce in the 1960s and their turbulent relationship with iconic cigs brand Lucky Strike.

The AMC-produced show has won a worldwide audience with fan forums expressing admiration for the ad executives’ hard-drinking and chain smoking lifestyle.

There are even drinking and smoking games played at Mad Men parties, where revellers have to drink and smoke every time a character does on screen.

Dr Penny Woods, Chief Executive of the British Lung Foundation, said: “It’s long been suspected that many people start smoking because they consider it ‘cool’.


“It is possible that programmes like Mad Men, where successful men in sharp suits chain smoke throughout the programme, are playing a part in maintaining that image.

“Over the last decade, measures such as the smoking ban and the ban on tobacco advertising have helped cut the number of young people smoking in the UK.

“It would be deeply distressing if the glamorisation of smoking on TV was counteracting any of these achievements.

“One way to help cut the association of particular brands with their use in popular culture would be to introduce standardised plain packaging for all tobacco products.

“That instant brand recognition would soon die out if the cigarette packs people buy in real life look nothing like the packaging they see on the screen.

“Plain packaging would finally stop tobacco companies getting round the ban on tobacco advertising by marketing their products through expensively designed wrapping.”

Let’s take this as read then, that people are definitely smoking more Lucky Strikes as a result of the coolness factor of Mad Men.

But we’ve two possible outcomes here. One is that the same number of people are smoking the same number of cigarettes, it’s just that there’s been a move from, say, Winston to Luckies.

The other is that the growth in the sale of Luckies has come from more people smoking ore cigarettes.

In option one advertising would be working just like the cigarette companies say it does: it moves people around between brands. In option two it would be working like the campaigners says it does, in increasing smoking in general.

So, anyone got the numbers for total tobacco sales?

Given that we know that smoking is in gentle decline my best guess is that we’re in a world where option 1 is true. That is, that this rise in the number of Luckies sold as a result of the branding is cannibalisation of extant sales, not an increase in total sales.

And of course, if this is true, then the case for plain packs and no branding is entirely demolished. For if it doesn’t increase smoking, only changes what is smoked, then there is no public health grounds to ban the branding, is there?

9 thoughts on “So does branding really increase smoking?”

  1. And it absolutely must be one or the other; not possibly a combination of both. So if the former is true the latter cannot possibly be true. This product placement cannot possibly be helping to slow a general decline.
    No, advertising doesn’t just work for the product itself, it also works to change attitiudes to the wider market. Works the same in polotics and social life. That’s why we have political correctness growing even as its chief proponebts lose elections.
    My opinion, for what it’s worth – entirely non-empirical – is image association, such as Mad Men, is far more powerful than direct advertising. So non-branding is a waste of time.

  2. Well, you have to start with the popularity of the show. Because if the audiences didn’t like the people on the screen aggressively smoking at them, it wouldn’t be the subject of discussion.
    So now you have a third option. Branding isn’t the cause of people taking up smoking. Anti-smoking campaigns are. Because almost as fast as smokers are taking advice & abandoning the habit, non-smokers are rejecting the constant & irritating nudge campaigns for a risk free life & taking up smoking because it is a danger to health & a challenge to anti-smoking fanatics.

  3. That is, that this rise in the number of Luckies sold as a result of the branding is cannibalisation of extant sales, not an increase in total sales.

    Something they mention in Mad Men, iirc.

  4. While, like you Tim, I believe in freedom the long term decline in smoking does not support the case that advertising has no effect on overall sales. There is a vast and growing amount of advertising, paid for by the government, well taxpayer since government has no money of its own, against smoking. This is strong evidence that advertising works to change overall smoking levels.

    Some products, like car insurance, are limited by factors beyond advertising on the other hand who would ever buy fabric softener without prompting?

  5. Advertising has three distinct and different aims depending on the maturity of the market/market position of the advertiser.

    1. To introduce a new thing to market: take up smoking.
    2. Brand competition: smoke Craving A instead of Smokey Camels.
    3. Brand reinforcement: you made the right choice.

    All plain packaging can do is eliminate 2 and 3.

    In an established market people are already ‘using’ and those not are mostly influenced by their families and peers whether they start to ‘use’.

    Exhibit A: illegal drugs. No advertising; all in plain packets; plethora of Government anti-use propaganda. Peer pressure/example and possibly the Government adverse publicity driving use.

    Statistics on cigarettes and fascists who want to tell us how to live our lives, overlook transfer of risk.

    Fall in sales of tobacco products has coincided with the increase in recreational drugs. Driving tobacco product prices up, makes them level with cost of drugs.

    So care when declaring a triumph for taxation and anti-smoking propaganda.

    Ciggies were the happening thing pre-war, womens’ libbing etc, but recreational drugs have become the happening, cool thing for the younger generations.

    Given that cash in hand is limited, money is either spent on booze and fags or booze and drugs. Drugs are ‘it’.

    Driving people off booze, the latest fascisto-cause, just releases more cash for drugs, or whatever awaits down the way to be the next cool thing to be disapproved by the fascists.

    Maybe if they just left us alone!

  6. Driving people off booze, the latest fascisto-cause, just releases more cash for drugs,

    Didn’t the brewers get all upset in the 90s as everyone was taking Ecstasy instead of drinking? I seem to remember reading something that suggested that one of the reasons behind the explosion in alcopops, new types of shots etc was that the brewers realised that people a) didn’t all like the taste of beer and b) wanted to get plastered quickly so they started to market products as alcohol delvery systems.

  7. I had occasion to check the official figures for the sale of tobacco products in the UK in recent years.
    The sales of (taxed) cigarettes in the UK has dropped by some 20% since 2008. Duty income has not fallen, however.
    Smoking prevalence has hardly changed at all.
    I did not save the source, I’m afraid, but I suppose that I could find it again.

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