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Cigarette advertisers improvise

Tobacco companies may yearn for the old days, when they could call on Rob and Laura Petrie, or even Fred Flintstone, to yabba-dabba-doo about their cigarettes.

The tobacco industry faces the prospect of the sharpest restrictions on advertising yet, with the surgeon general declaring she would rather see no advertising for "something we know to be a poison and a killer."

But as hostility toward smoking and its advertising has grown, companies have increasingly pursued other strategies to attract new customers.

Over the last four years, the tobacco industry has cut its advertising in half, shifting to sales approaches that are proving more efficient than traditional broadcast and print advertising.

Why pay to reach people who will never smoke if you can offer discount coupons, merchandise and other blandishments to those who do?

Restricted from television and radio advertising for more than 20 years, the tobacco industry is among the pioneers in selling its products without the sort of media bombardment that has made American consumer brands so familiar in the first place.

"The tobacco industry has been in the vanguard," said Bonnie Carlson, chairman of the Promotion Marketing Association of America.

Indeed, marketers of every stripe are learning how to focus on their most receptive prospects, rather than the broad masses of viewers and readers who may be indifferent or even hostile to their pitches.

"I don't think we're unique in that respect," said Ellen Merlo, a Philip Morris vice president and veteran marketer for Marlboro and the other company brands. "Consumer products in general have shifted some of their emphasis away from traditional media into other forms of promotion."

For cigarettemakers, the shift was born of necessity, given the restrictions, warning requirements and increasing threat of further limits on their advertising.

Just in last two weeks:

A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association linked advertising of women's brands to smoking by teenage girls.

McDonald's prohibited smoking at its wholly owned restaurants, and the chain-restaurant trade group called for an end to smoking in all public buildings.

Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders urged a ban on cigarette advertising aimed at the young, adding that she would rather not have any cigarette advertising at all. The tobacco companies argue that a complete ban on advertising would infringe on their free-speech rights.

The Food and Drug Administration suggested that because cigarettes are sold to satisfy an addiction, they could be regulated or banned as a drug.

The Marlboro Adventure Team campaign, which ended last Monday after hundreds of millions of dollars in expense, exemplifies the industry's new approach. Karen Daragan, Philip Morris' manager of media affairs, termed the campaign "probably the largest and most successful consumer promotion ever launched by a packaged goods company."

More than 10-million smokers have clipped symbols and bar codes from their packs, and about half earned enough Marlboro Miles to order a total of 14-million sleeping bags, jackets, shorts, watches, lighters, caps and other gear.

All bore the Marlboro Adventure Team logo, allowing the wearers to identify with the 10 customers chosen in a sweepstakes and essay contest to venture by four-wheel-drive, white-water raft and, of course, horseback through Marlboro country.

Now, Philip Morris marketers boast that the Adventure Team promotion and a carefully calculated price cut increased Marlboro's share of the $42-billion cigarette market from 22 percent last March to nearly 27 percent in January, widening its lead over all other brands.

Flush with the names and addresses of their new customers, they are planning their next campaign.

Over at R.J. Reynolds, Philip Morris' major rival, marketers pride themselves on computerized data banks so huge and detailed that they can go far beyond merely aiming their discount coupons and Camel Cash merchandise offers at the less than one-quarter of Americans who smoke.

They can choose not just smokers of competing brands, but those who smoke brands with price, taste and image most like those of Camels, for example. In fact, Reynolds can select from that last group just those smokers who would gladly switch, for a few pennies a pack, or perhaps an ashtray or cap.

Coordinating these efforts with traditional advertising is so effective, Reynolds says, that 93 percent of Camel smokers ages 21 to 24 have switched from other brands, and 67 percent of Camel smokers have switched from Marlboro.

"There are some 500 brands and brand styles on the market now," said Peggy Carter, speaking for Reynolds. "Standing out from all that advertising is a challenge. With the emergence of new computer capabilities, there are things that could be done by any marketer now that you simply couldn't do years ago."

For the tobacco companies, promotions aimed at willing adult smokers have also become a way of answering accusations that they are trying to recruit young customers.

Elders and other industry critics have said that the Joe Camel cartoon character in particular, now joined by Josephine Camel, is meant to appeal to children.

Reynolds and other tobacco companies say that smokers acquire the habit only from parents and friends and that their advertising can create only brand loyalty or switching.

For all the calls from Congress and other quarters to ban cigarette advertising or end the tax deductions for it, some advertising experts say that the government can hardly keep up with the latest forms of promotion.

Eugene Secunda, a professor of marketing at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y., said that marketing by computerized mailing or telephone lists is far more difficult to regulate.

"You can do things in direct response that you could never do in other areas, making claims that could not easily be substantiated," he said. "The government doesn't really understand what is going on."

Newer forms of marketing are often designed to overcome the resistance of customers numbed by the onslaught of traditional advertising. Secunda, once the president of an advertising agency, initiated the taping of video news releases, especially for drug companies, that penetrated television news shows, with no notice to viewers that they were watching sales pitches.

Tobacco companies, he said, have positioned stadium signs to advertise their brands every time a television camera turns to the scoreboard. Arts, sports and charity sponsorships have long been the refuge of embattled companies, but public television is helping them out, he said, by extending what used to be simple acknowledgments into flowery promotions.

"The traditional slug-them-over-the-head advertising is becoming suspect," he said. "But people don't realize they are being hyped in much more subtle ways.'

Source: New York Times