Banning Cigarette Advertising: a Cure That Will Aggravate the Disease

Paul N. Bloom, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
[ to cite ]:
Paul N. Bloom (1990) ,"Banning Cigarette Advertising: a Cure That Will Aggravate the Disease", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, eds. Marvin E. Goldberg, Gerald Gorn, and Richard W. Pollay, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 480-481.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, 1990      Pages 480-481


Paul N. Bloom, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

I think banning cigarette advertising is a bad idea. I have a variety of reasons for holding this belief, none of which have to do with any emotional or financial ties to cigarettes or the cigarette industry. Indeed, I have never smoked, have always hated being around cigarette smoke, and have never taken a penny from the cigarette industry (or from any anti-smoking groups, for that matter). Moreover, I dislike the idea of an ad ban even though I am convinced that cigarette advertising does help to persuade people -- especially young people -- to smoke who would have not done so otherwise. I simply cannot accept the argument that all those millions are being spent merely to take market share away from one another.

So why do I want to permit something to continue that I feel contributes to serious public health problems? Essentially, I dislike an ad ban because I think it is the wrong remedy for the problem. And what bothers me about this remedy goes much deeper than a simple concern about its potential infringement on freedom of commercial speech. Frankly, I don't think the First Amendment protects sellers from saying things that can harm people -- and the courts have recently affirmed this. Instead, what bothers me about an ad ban is that, at best, I think it will have a negligible effect on smoking behavior, while, at worst, it could contribute to significantly higher levels of nicotine addiction worldwide. Let me elaborate on why I reach these conclusions and then present several ideas for alternative remedies that I think would be more effective.

My basic view is that flaws in how consumers process information about cigarettes permit cigarette advertising lo help in persuading people to begin smoking. I feel that two kinds of flaws predominate. These are:

1. Some consumers are influenced to value or weight certain attributes of cigarettes like "makes you look sophisticated" or "helps you relax" relatively more than they value health and safety attributes.

2. Some consumers find information about the health and safety attributes of cigarettes confusing, difficult to comprehend, and costly to acquire. They therefore develop inaccurate beliefs about the health and safety attributes of cigarettes.

Young consumers seem most likely to experience these flaws and I doubt whether banning advertising would do much to protect these people from their occurrence.

A ban on advertising would certainly reduce the opportunity for consumers to see and hear messages that tell them directly or indirectly that they should value attributes other than health and safety. But it would also reduce the opportunity for them to see the current warning disclosures, which may help somewhat in getting consumers to at least keep health and safety a consideration. On balance, the current system clearly tilts things strongly toward valuing sophistication, relaxation, and so forth over health and safety. However, I fear a system without advertising would tilt things even more. Young consumers would decide how to value attributes based on watching peers, admired adults, celebrities, and everything else in the world. I worry that some young people will only be exposed to pro-smoking values, and I also worry about how the cigarette companies might be able to use nonadvertising forms of promotion to make a good part of everything else in the world (e.g., sporting events, movies, in-store-displays) be a pitch for pro-smoking values. With the economic incentives for the cigarette companies as great as they are, I don't think we can underestimate how ingenious they might be in finding alternative ways to communicate their values through non-advertising channels.

Let me also stress that the current warning disclosures contain accurate information about health and safety hazards which would not be as readily available to consumers with an advertising ban. Thus, I think there is a good chance that consumers would possess both more pro-smoking values and more inaccurate beliefs about the health and safety hazards of cigarettes under an advertising ban.

An ad ban would also insulate the major cigarette companies from a certain amount of competitive pressure. They would be protected from any upstart company being able to enter the market with a big splash by advertising a truly "safer" cigarette. And they would be protected somewhat from beating on each other. In a sense, an ad ban would cause a truce to their advertising arms race and allow them to pocket millions of dollars while settling into a cozy shared-monopoly situation. Who knows where they would put all this money? Perhaps it would allow them to be even more aggressive in promoting the pleasures of smoking throughout the developing world.

The bottom line could very well be a lot more smokers around the world -- and in the U.S. -- and a lot less revenues for U.S. media. The big winners in all this, other than the cigarette companies, could be the overseas media. But I wonder, if we are so interested in helping the foreign media, why don't we simply leave things the way they are now and provide them with some nice foreign aid grants? Certainly, the cost of this would be lower than the increased health care expenses in the U.S. and elsewhere that I think our government would have to pay for if the ad ban went through.

What would I do instead of an advertising ban to remedy the situation? Maybe I'm a dreamer, but my inclination would be to pursue two policy directions: better warning disclosures and stronger antitrust enforcement. I think improved and larger warning disclosures in the advertisements can't hurt, unless they actually would encourage the cigarette companies to call a truce on their own and stop advertising altogether. But to prevent this from happening, I think it would be helpful to break the giant companies of this industry into smaller companies. Then they would be less able to capitalize on their old brand equity and be forced to use advertising and other differentiation tools -including trying to develop safer cigarettes -- to try to build new forms of brand equity. The new, smaller companies might be less efficient than the old ones, and their prices might be higher, but these higher prices might even encourage a few addicts to quit or cut down. This approach would not be the "quick fix" that people are seeking from an advertising ban, but I feel it would work much better in the long run.