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Death and Taxes

by Andy Davis / 07.04.2011

I thought there was a ban on cigarette advertising? But apparently, now it’s OK just so long as SARS and the SA government also have something to lose. I refer to the emotive ad above. A massive campaign launched by British American Tobacco (BAT), in December 2010, to highlight the imminent peril of buying illegal cigarettes, which, if you believe the ads, could be worse for your health than smoking.

Reviewing this campaign is like unpicking a tangled web that highlights a toxic nexus of self interest, double standards and making sure that the big business tobacco company spin on illegal cigarettes wins out and becomes the dominant narrative. You know, the usual grist of late capitalism.

Let’s start with that goon with the gun. To the untrained eye, he looks like a bad ass 26, a scary Cape Flats gangster, a stone cold killer, but really a bit of Google research shows that it’s just a photo-shopped Getty stock image. Still until I knew that, I was scared, that dude looks batshit crazy. It prompted me to think, maybe illegal cigarettes are dangerous? Fuck I’d hate to confront that guy in my living room late at night. So the ad plays on a basic fear response. Low hanging fruit in crime-rocked South Africa. To get the maximum fear bang-for-their buck this criminal couldn’t be a funny looking, PC, white oke in a balaclava, like those Trellidor ads. Nope, this needs to resonate! It needs to dip into the well of established suburban fears. A young black man with a gun… Roll out the old faithful racial trope. An uncontrollable rapist on a killing spree… surprise surprise, he’s black. This is lowest common denominator propaganda shit right here. And it’s damn obvious. Let’s draw strong lines in the public’s mind between illegal cigarettes, crime, drugs and international terrorism. Get your fear on.

Let’s defer to Occam’s razor. Invariably, the only people who benefit from this campaign are the established cigarette companies, SARS and the SA government who love our tax moolah so much. It’s obvious that behind the slip of an “awareness campaign” the cigarette company’s big hairy balls are showing. They’re doing a suggestive PR dance with ostrich feathers, the truth and a gilt-edged opportunity to bring the subject of cigarettes back into the mainstream media space. Let’s breakdown the boardroom logic:

“OK, so we make a product that if consumed, regularly, over time, as prescribed, will kill our consumers. Because of this the government slaps a huge amount of tax on the sale of our product to try and deter you, the smoker, and make a lot of money at the same time. Lucky for us, the high prices don’t really deter smokers, because nicotine addiction is very strong. But now there’s a recession and right next door we have a major tobacco producing nation, with serious political and economic problems and a steady flow of economic refugees looking for a better life in South Africa. And all of a sudden there’s a major influx of illegal cigarettes, eating into our profits!”
“Hang on sir, I have an idea!”
“What is it Morris?”
“Selling illegal cigarettes is a crime, right?”
“And people who commit crimes are criminals, right?”
“And criminals are highly likely to be involved in other crimes! So what we need to do is unleash the specter of violent crime, drugs and international terrorism.”
“But are they related?”
“Of course they’re related! They’re illegal… and besides, this is the underworld, no one has absolute stats or definitive market research.”
“You’re right Morris, Illegal cigarettes are the number one enemy of freedom! They fund everything from car hijacking to Al Qaeda.”

Illegal Cigarettes, Drugs, BAT

And in one fell swoop they get to act against the loss of profits, do some important PR spin on just how bad and dangerous those pesky illegal cigarettes are, and get some of that good ol’ banned advertising juice they love so much but aren’t allowed to touch. And so instead of a new wing for emphysema research at Baragwanath, we get this guy with the gun on billboards, in print, on radio and TV – it’s a blitz. It’s the war on illegal cigarettes. And no matter what anyone argues, these ads also work to sell cigarettes.

Let me explain, one way or the the other – people on the street, just going about their business, and not necessarily thinking about having a choof, are suddenly invited, by a scary looking man with a gun, to think about cigarettes. This is better than skiing in Colorado with Peter Stuyvesant… this shit gets your attention. Fear! Kak yourself. Don’t fund crime! Smoke the real thing. Much better. Exhale. Aaaah. And if you’ve ever been hooked on that sweet sweet nicotine that final thought is enough to get the ol’ pleasure receptors in your brain firing. Soon you’ll be mindsurfing towards an image of yourself pulling on a nice fresh shmaf – and kazaam! Advertising has been achieved. Awareness of a whole range of products has been created, and thanks to the power of nicotine, a need has been exposed that needs to be sated. Leading, happily, to the sale of cigarettes. Ironically, many of them illegal. Cue trigger of scary black man with the gun. Well done BAT, you may have just become a case study for Trojan Horse advertising campaigns. What a scoop. A coup. Boardroom high fives all round.

Now I’m not arguing that illegal cigarettes are not problematic and that there aren’t criminal syndicates involved in a range of crimes who turn a tidy profit supplying these high quality Zimbabwean tobacco products to a willing market. What I am arguing is that it’s not such a major issue that it deserves a massive R8.5 million Rand advertising campaign, that flaunts a ban on cigarette advertising, to bring it to our attention. I’d rather BAT sink that cash into research to combat and treat lung cancer, or how about a health insurance fund tied into cigarette sales?

Obviously, to BAT the continued supply of cheap Zimbabwean cigarettes is eating into their profits, and it’s against the law! Cue rising indignation. At SARS, the same thing is chowing up the tax money bonafide cigarette sales generate. And that, we have to identify, is the primary impetus for the campaign. But it’s hard to expect the population to feel sorry for tobacco companies or SARS. Death and Taxes. It’s the same Modus Operandi as the build up to the war in Iraq: “sex” up the problem, shift the real focus and spin a web of fear to protect the profit.

These ads, paint the story they want you to see. Scary criminals that erode the fabric of our society. Gone is the nuance, the human story of a failed state next door, whose aged, corrupt and autocratic leader has been supported by a protracted 10 year policy of obfuscation and inaction from our government – the supposedly democratic regional superpower. A failed neighbour state that just happens to be a major producer of high quality tobacco products. And what about the inconvenient story of millions of economic refugees who cross the border, frequently with bags stuffed full of cartons of tasty, high quality cheap Zimbo cigs… Poor, oppressed Zimbabweans looking for a better life in South Africa, escaping tyranny, who just happen to see a gap in the market. Entrepreneurial heroes to the families they feed. It’s not the story of hard working immigrant Somali spaza shop owners who simply supply the demand for a cheaper alternative. It’s not about sin tax, porous borders, a dysfunctional police force, the recession or being addicted to nicotine. Nope, it’s the story of cold blooded gangsters who kill and maim and rape and kill again because you smoke illegal cigarettes.

And yes, in case you hadn’t worked it out yet, it’s all your fault.

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