The New York Times says the obvious….Philip Morris knows very well that its social responsibility campaigns to convince youngsters not to start smoking are ineffective

In a recent editorial, the New York Times harshly scolds Philip Morris for its communication initiative to convince youngsters not to start smoking. Here (nyt editorial) is the article, a required and recommended reading for all public relators…..…before I proceed, I must immediately declare my bias..

From 1976 to 1996, for twenty years, I was public relations consultant also to Philip Morris in Italy and, unlike Edward Bernays (si parva licet…), I have not in these last ten years changed my mind over the fact that the activities I undertook on behalf of that Company where ethically or even morally unfounded.

At the same time, contrary to my illustrious colleague,  I would also have a very good reason to be angry with that company as, in the year 2000 (i.e. three years after I had resigned only because I was fed up…after twenty years!) without even alerting me, in a succesfull effort to substantially reduce the size of an astronomical fine it received from the US Courts, my ex client decided to make publicly available on the Internet all the confidential documents (700 hundred of them!) I had sent to my client about our public affairs activities in my country!

However, besides being angry with myself for not having had the will to sue Philip Morris for blatantly violating twenty years of signed and reciprocal confidentiality agreements (I would be very wealthy today, as my lawyers suggested at the time I found out…), I have no hard feelings against this company because I have learned, for the good and for the bad, more from PM than any other client, and I have done (almost) nothing that I wouldn’t do again in the same conditions.

Having said this, I am very confident that PM is and has been very much aware that its so-claimed socially responsible communication activities are, in the best of cases, innocuos and, in the most probable of cases, counterproductive.

There is a 1989 memorandum I sent PM Europe headquarters in which I rationalised that most of the social antismoking campaigns undertaken by Ministries of Health were counterproductive, as well as the health warning on cigarette packs which were then being pushed by the EU and are now common practice.

Basically, the argument is that communication attempting to modify individual behaviours is effective only if the content is familiar and the source is credible. The latter condition is where social communication usually falls on its ass.

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2 Replies to “The New York Times says the obvious….Philip Morris knows very well that its social responsibility campaigns to convince youngsters not to start smoking are ineffective

  1. Agree and even more so…
    I have been involved for many years in the international antiprohibitionist movement advocating for outright legalization (and subsequent regulation) of drugs. In looking at the literature on the effect of government led communication efforts in many different countries to delay the pervasiveness of drug abuse, I have always been shocked in realizing that these efforts are almost always conterproductive… Entire academic and political careers (plus agency budgets..) have been built on the false assumption that if you throw money (taxpayer money, that is) at reducing undesirable behaviour you will eventually reach results. This is definitely not the case and I am worried that more and more often governments resort to ethical and politically correct guidance in society. The latest one, to cite but one case, is to refuse medical assistance to individuals who indulge in
    life styles which are not in line with what a government believes to be correct. For example, in Italy (but in many scandinavian countries and even in the Uk this has been so since a few years) this will probably happen to smokers, notwithstanding that they are already subject to paying an extra tax worth 75/80% of the cost of a pack fo a lifetime in order to give the State in advance the money it will need to spend in order to be looked after when the time comes, let alone the fact that they ‘normally’ die earlier anyhow and therefore cost less to society in terms of pension and al…A difficult but cogent argument…no?

  2. Toni,
    Anti-tobacco campaigns will always have limited effects. I am sure no one will disagree with this. Social marketing or behaviour modificiation on a societal scale require a wide public concensus before it is attempted. While on the surface most would agree that smoking is bad and a nasty habit, the youth segment sees it entirely differently and that is why these kinds of ‘ don’t do it’ campaigns fail, Youth are rebellious and want their independence far sooneer than they may be ready to deal with the consequences of their choices. That is not a put down on youth or their ability to be rational, it is an observation that we- who have all been there at one point in your early life- would recognize. No wonder the parents liked the ads, it was designed as a mirror of themsleves- giving them a colelctive and mass media voice. What was the response from youth? More adults (even if they used youth actors it would sound the same) telling me what not to do! Why are we surpised? I think PM knew exactly what it was doing. No one in the adult world could blame them. Governmewnts would applaud their efforts and CSR activity. Hey even some youth would agree that they should do this, but would it be effective? Would it stop youth from thinking that they should stop this bad behaviour? No way. It only makes it even more cool to try it and be part of the ‘in gang’ that must obvioulsy know what they are doing!

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