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The New Tobacco Wars with Joe Chemical and New Yorkers for Beverage Choices

Raz Godelnik
| Thursday July 5th, 2012 | 2 Comments

Cigarettes have never been more popular. Well, at least on drawing board of two advocacy campaigns trying to shape public perception on controversial issues. The first is a print ad campaign run by EDF and Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families (SCHF), showing how Joe Camel has become “Joe Chemical” to link the practices of the chemical industry to those used by the tobacco industry. The second are the campaigns the American Beverage Association is running against proposed restrictions on soda beverages in several states, using some of the tactics used by Big Tobacco, such as presenting the proposed legislation as an attack on personal choice.

The first story is very interesting as the EDF and SCHF are making wise use of iconic visual images of tobacco companies to reshape the public perception of chemical companies. These ads follow the Chicago Tribunes recent series, Playing with Fire, which focused on flame retardants that are found in a variety of household products despite evidence they put people’s health at risk, and “how industry has used deceptive tactics to convince the public they’re needed.”

Andy Igrejas explained on SCHF blog what these deceptive tactics included: “…distortions of the science demonstrating adverse health impacts of the chemicals themselves; the creation of front groups to enforce the industry’s will with vicious political attacks; and extorting support from other businesses by threatening them with rigged videos showing their products bursting into flames.” To the EDF and SCHF it was clear that these tactics are taken from the playbook of the tobacco companies and they decided it’s time to connect the dots.

Now, the ad campaign was not just about pointing a finger at the chemical companies, but also about a more practical goal – shaping public perception. EDF and SCHF are working to promote the Safe Chemicals Act, introduced by Senator Lautenberg and co-sponsored by 21 senators, which is supposed to address all of the major gaps in current law including the flawed system for reviewing new chemicals that the Tribune documented in some detail. Even with the support of 22 senators, this is a tough sell on Capitol Hill because the chemical industry is opposing the bill. As Ken Cook, co-founder of the nonprofit, Environmental Working Group, explained: “There are powerful interests out there that want to keep things just the way they are.”

With such resistance the chances of the legislation passing are quite slim, unless the public demands it. That will only happen if the public understands not just how the current system is broken, but also that the chemical companies don’t want the public to know about it. To communicate this message effectively, the EDF and SCHF decided use the iconic visual of Joe Camel, followed by another iconic figure – the Marlboro Man. In both cases, the ads included text formatted like the warnings you find on cigarette packs. “Companies that dishonest can’t be trusted to regulate themselves. We need the Safe Chemicals Act.”

While the EDF and SCHF are fighting against the adoption of the Big Tobacco playbook, there are those who find it desirable mainly because it worked so well for the tobacco industry such a long time. The latest example is the American Beverage Association (ABA), who is working hard in some states to eliminate proposed restrictions on the consumption of soda drinks. According to Elizabeth Wilner on Advertising Age, ABA, has spent about $16 million on TV ads so far this year trying to head off such efforts, nearly doubling the $9.7 million they spent on TV ads for all of 2011.

ABA is spending this big money on ads showing “how America’s beverage companies are making it easier to choose the beverage that’s right for you – with more choices, smaller portions, fewer calories and clear calorie labels.” This part of the campaign corresponds with some of the tactics used by the tobacco industry mentioned in new research comparing CSR tactics of the tobacco and beverage industries, such as heavy investment in PR.

Another tactic reported by the New York Times is relationship-building with minority-group lawmakers, arguing that their communities are disproportionately affected by sales regulations. Last, but not least, ABA adopted one of the most popular and copied tactics in the tobacco industry’s playbook – transforming the debate from health issues to freedom and choices. If you look at the campaign, they initiated ‘New Yorkers for Beverage Choices’ focused on the message that New Yorkers don’t really need the mayor’s help to decide what size beverage is appropriate. “If this now, what’s next?” the campaign asks.

Although these tactics worked well so far for ABA, it might be time for them to consider a new playbook and a new direction. After all, as history shows, it can delay action against the soda companies but not stop it for good. And they certainly don’t want to see Joe Camel become Joe Coke.

[Image credit: Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.


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