A Case Study: Smokers' Hacks

"I'll tell you why I like the cigarette business. It costs a penny to make. Sell it for a dollar. It's addictive. And there's fantastic brand loyalty." - WARREN BUFFET, once R.J. Reynold's largest shareholder

This case study is a great example of practices that are considered unethical. It studies the tobacco industry and its use of public relations to misinform the public, create front organizations and basically work for the best interest of itself while ignoring the public. The case covers the main developments in the tobacco industry's use of public relations:

The Beginning

One of the PR industry's first major clients was the tobacco industry. In the early 1900s, tobacco companies used PR's psychological marketing skills to hook women and children. Before WWI, it was considered unrefined for women to smoke and effeminate for men to smoke. By the 1920s, it was considered in fashion for men to smoke, and the tobacco companies started to market to women, too. The American Tobacco Company used PR to sell its Lucky Strike cigarettes to women. It hired A.D. Lasker, an advertising professional, to portray Lucky Strike as a healthy cigarette by exposing the public to false data and made-up claims from doctors. The company also had famous opera stars endorse the product with testimonials such as "Cigarettes are kind to your throat" and "I protect my precious voice with Lucky Strike." Obviously, the issue of ethics was not too important back in these days.

As more and more people started smoking, tobacco companies were making even more claims to keep the customers buying. Edward Bernays, a pioneer in public relations, was hired by Lucky Strike to develop a campaign targeting women. The slogan "Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet" played on women's worries about weight. Lucky Strike sales tripled in one year after this campaign convinced women that smoking would help them stay thin. (How do you think Virginia Slims got the name?) There was also Bernays' legendary parade publicity stunt. In an effort to sell cigarettes as a symbol of women's liberation, he had attractive young women march in New York's Easter parade while waving a lit cigarette and proclaiming it to be a "torch of liberty."


Discovering Illness

Decades of this advertising and promotion continued on until the 1950s, using TV, radio, magazines, movies and just about any other medium possible. This work for the tobacco industry earned PR widespread credibility and launched today's multi-billion dollar PR industry.

However, the tobacco industry was in for a shock. By the early 1950s, scientists were reporting a possible link between cancer and smoking. In 1953, a study by a prominent scientist reported a definite link between the two. As more and more reports came out within the next year, the tobacco industry began to panic. They were calling it the "1954 emergency." Fighting for its product, the tobacco industry launched what may be considered the longest-running, most expensive and most successful PR "crisis management" campaign in history. The industry wanted to "create a doubt about the health charge without actually denying it and advocate the public's right to smoke without actually encouraging them to do so."


The Council for Tobacco Research

And so a brilliant and completely unethical campaign was formed. The tobacco industry turned to John Hill, founder of the PR firm, Hill & Knowlton. Hill designed an expensive campaign that the tobacco industry is still using today to save itself from government action and public rejection. A front organization called the Council for Tobacco Research (originally called the Tobacco Institute Research Committee) was formed. Prominent researchers and scientists were hired to to "study the effects of smoking and work for the good of the public." But suprise, surprise, CTR did not work for the good of the public. Instead, it was used to mislead and confuse the public on the dangers of smoking. It refuted, undermined and neutralized information coming from the real scientific community

With the help of CTR and lobbyist groups, the tobacco companies continued with their growing success. The National Smokers Alliance, a front group funded by millions of dollars from Philip Morris, had 3 million members by 1995. It used its funds for ads, telemarketing and newsletters that brought in thousands of smokers a week. It encouraged its members to "stand up for your individual rights and fight discriminatory anti-smoking laws."

In the end, the industry was faced with thousands of law suits from smokers who were dying from their habit. By the late 1990s, tobacco companies were no longer able to cover up findings like they could before. They paid billions of dollars to people claiming they were tricked and deceived when it came to smoking. Now it's the industry's turn to fight for its life, as even smokers are favoring stricter government regulation of their deadly habit.

However, tobacco sales are still growing worldwide. At a PR seminar in 1996, Tom Lauria, chief lobbyist for the CTR, dismissed tobacco critics as a "political correctness craze." He said his industry has been fighting for its life and winning for a long time.


Bernay's Regrets

Today, there are over 20,000 members of the PRSA that pledge to abide by its code of ethics. PR legend Edward Bernays, "torches of liberty" creator, said if he had known of the dangers of tobacco at the time, he would have refused the account. As a nonsmoker, he lived to be 103. Before he died in 1995, he spent his final years appealing to the PRSA to police its members. "Under present conditions, an unethical person can sign the code of PRSA, become a member and practice unethically- untouched by any legal sanctions," he said. "In law and medicine, such an individual is subject to disbarment from the profession. ... There are no standards. ... This sad situation makes it possible for anyone, regardless of education or ethics, to use the term 'public relations' to describe his or her function."