By Lisa Marie Chirico
Did you know that more doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette? Well, according to a nationwide survey, that is. As absurd as this statements sounds, it was sold as “truth” back in 1946, when R.J. Reynolds aspired their Camel brand to be the cigarette of choice for consumers. The tobacco industry’s advertising strategies can be seen as nothing short of über-successful during the twentieth century, when cigarette smoking gained wide popularity in the United States. In 1965, when per capita consumption peaked in the U.S., approximately 33 percent of American women and 50 percent of American men smoked, causing untold damage to their health.
The ripples of that damage are felt today, although cigarette smokers are declining in the U.S. as they increase in developing countries. Few would agree that big tobacco represents a sustainable business model, by any means. Yet, the manufacturers of some of today’s most popular (and unhealthy) products, from fast food to soda to tanning beds, are replicating the tobacco industry’s tried-and-true advertising and marketing strategies.
For some, it is a rude awakening to discover that the industries behind their favorite products do not have their best interests at heart. For others, this matters little. According to one study, five months after their cancer diagnosis, 37 percent of those with lung cancer continued to smoke. When it comes to junk food consumption, negative press and published studies seem to have limited impact on consumer choices. For instance, in spite of the link between high-fat, high-sugar food and obesity, and that now more than one-third of all adults in the U.S. are obese, the American appetite for fast food continues. Researchers at Emory University discovered that approximately $168 billion was spent on fast food in the U.S. in 2011, and since 2001, the industry’s annual U.S. revenues have increased about 20 percent.
With data supporting the premise that sugary drinks like soda contribute to Type 2 diabetes and weight gain, the popularity of soda has showed a slight decline with American consumers over the past several years. Consumer education regarding the health risks associated with “indoor tanning” and its link to skin cancer also appear to be changing hearts and minds on some level. In the U.S., some states such as Vermont and California have banned the use of tanning beds by minors. In addition, one study showed that the promotion of sunless tanning as an alternative to indoor tanning produced measurable results.
Yet, can studies, surveys, and data compete with the strength of a savvy advertising campaign when it comes to changing consumer behavior? It appears to be a challenging battle. The application of several of big tobacco’s most successful advertising tactics over the past fifty years such as the use of authority figures and celebrities, in addition to inflated claims of health benefits, is out in full force today. To enhance their brand with Millennials, Pepsi hired Beyoncé as their new advertising spokesperson; Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps is a “Famous Fan” of Subway; and this month, fast food chains such as Taco Bell and Burger King announced new so-called healthy menu items.
While CSR initiatives, such as McDonald’s recent shift to Marine Stewardship Council-approved fish, offer hope that the triple bottom line is taking hold, one can’t help but wonder how much longer corporate profits will dominate the mind of big business.