In the 1950s and ’60s, it was open slather for tobacco companies to target teens.
“One of the most important customers today is the youthful novice in smoking,” declared an article in the Tobacco Trade Journal of Queensland in 1954.
“He is your customer of the future and special efforts should be made to cultivate him.”
The “model age” for smoking initiation in Australia, the industry held, was 15 years.
“Statistics show that 12 per cent of the population in Australia are teenagers and represent 16 per cent of the total purchasing power,” said the journal in 1964. “The importance of wooing this group with advertising is therefore evident”.
Teenagers the industry found, were “most responsive to advertising, and when it appears in a form slanted to them directly, it becomes a valuable springboard for capturing this lucrative market”.
But the steady attention of health authorities and governments, including creeping advertising bans from 1976 in Australia, have shut down these more blatant approaches to getting kids hooked.
Subtler techniques have been required.
In 1984, as Philip Morris tried to spruik its flagging Marlboro brand, it lamented that it lacked appeal to younger smokers and should “concentrate on sampling and promotion” to give young smokers “first-hand experience with the product”.
Across the industry, packaging was carefully designed to denote cool. Cartoon character Joe Camel, for example, was the “ambassador of smooth,” with his shades, his social ease and his high jivin’ lifestyle, and was clearly designed to be a hit with the kids.
Tobacco companies also got around advertising bans by sponsoring sporting events such as the Winfield Cup rugby league and Formula One to create an aura of success. Product placement in movies acted subliminally to reinforce the pro-smoking message.
“Incidental positive smoking imagery,” found the British Medical Journal, can “generate the … consumer effects attributed to … advertising”, and adolescent smokers were “particularly attuned” to it.
“Such imagery increased their urge to smoke and reduced their desire to quit.”
The latest challenge for big tobacco is plain packaging. Through FOI laws, perhaps, they are seeking once again to find a way to keep schoolkids and teens buying what they’re selling.