Stir the Senses

Stir the senses. Unleash the fury. Which slogan is for a cigarette ad, and which slogan is for a movie? Can't tell the difference? That seems to be exactly what tobacco company R.J. Reynolds had in mind.

The main goal of cigarette ads is obviously to get people to smoke cigarettes, but often young people are the target audience. In the past, companies have used several controversial methods to sell their product to teens and children, such as using a cartoon mascot like Joe Camel or advertising in magazines like Rolling Stone, which is read largely by young people.

Of course, anti-smoking campaigns have caught on to the strategies of cigarette companies and in 1997, R.J. Reynolds, the company that makes Camel cigarettes, was no longer allowed to use Joe Camel as its mascot. In 1998, tobacco companies signed the Master Settlement Agreement, which among other things, banned them from advertising to youth. And while a proposed ban on billboard advertisements has been ruled a violation of first amendment rights, in 2002, R.J. Reynolds was fined 20 million dollars for placing their ads in magazines such as Rolling Stone and Sports Illustrated, which have a high teen readership.

Despite publicly agreeing to not advertise to youth, it seems like tobacco companies just can't stop looking for young new customers. But just when we thought we had them down for the count with the 20 million dollar fine and anti-smoking campaigns like The Truth and all those gross pictures of peoples' lungs and throats, a new scheme has been unveiled.

Earlier this year, my Video Production teacher at Sammamish High School in Bellevue, Washington, Jerry De Pinto, came across a couple of ads in which he saw an uncanny similarity. One was for Salem Cigarettes.

salem ad
Stir the senses: ad for Salem cigarettes.

Now, this was around the time that the summer blockbuster The Incredible Hulk was about to be released in theaters and there were advertisements for it everywhere. An ad for this PG-13 movie was the one that Mr. De Pinto saw as being similar in design and effect to the Salem ad. Let's take a look at the Incredible Hulk ad.

hulk ad
Unleash the fury: ad for the Incredible Hulk movie.

Like the Salem ad, the Incredible Hulk ad is tinted green and a three-word catch phrase suggests an unexpected breach from the normal. Same marketing strategy, yet one ad is for cigarettes, the other for a movie that obviously hopes to attract lots of younger people.

Mr. De Pinto showed the Salem ad to his class with the surgeon general's warning covered up and asked his students what they thought it was for. A friend of mine, Jason Stephenson, thought the ad was for the X-Box game console. He said, "As soon as I saw the ad I saw the similarity to the X-box ads." It was clear that Salem was using the same advertising strategies used to attract kids to see movies about cartoon characters or buy video games.

In a June 25th article in the Seattle Times, which covered the discovery, Mr. De Pinto is quoted as wondering, "When did Salem change their ad to look like X-Box?" Mr. De Pinto's class made a video about the similarity of the ads and sent the video to Washington State Attorney General Christine Gregoire, the U.S. Justice Department and the American Lung Association. When the R.J. Reynolds heard about the video, spokesperson David Howard denied the company targets young people.

Interestingly, the Salem ads were pulled soon afterwards.

The subtlety of the Salem ad campaign is what makes it different from the rest of the cigarette ads. There is not one cigarette visible -- it could be an ad for a soft drink or a new car or a video game. It looks cool. At least in the old days the ads were a bit more straight-up. There is something too tricky about this one.

Whatever happened to the grizzled cowboy boldly telling us about the great taste of Marlboro cigarettes? Before, the main problem was kids wanting to emulate older people by smoking. The Salem ad goes too far by trying to almost trick us into trying cigarettes. Just as the Incredible Hulk ad makes you curious to "Unleash the Fury" and see the movie, the Salem ad makes you curious to try "Stirring the Senses" and take a drag from a cigarette. It's mysterious and enticing.

Maybe we brought this on ourselves by forcing tobacco companies to re-word their ads and get rid of their mascots. We should have known they would not give up so easily. In any care, at least the whistle has been blown on this. We can only imagine what will come next.

Ben Williams is a high school senior. He has also written for Youth Radio.

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