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Packaging just one battle in the cigarette war

Is tackling cigarette packaging the best way to stamp out smoking?

When Captain Cook first set foot in New Zealand they thought he was a demon – he was smoking – and indeed, the centuries that followed saw the rise and fall of what was to become one of the world’s most devilish consumer products.

After a gradual rise to fame, tobacco forfeited its immortality, as the supposedly glamorous layers of disguise were stripped away. Facts began to overshadow the marketing façade until cigarettes came full circle. And soon the fallen angel of consumerism could be stripped of its identity altogether.

The Aussies have made the first strike. As of next year all branded elements, such as colour, logos and typography, will be banned, leaving blank packaging. After bans on advertising, product placement and, in Australia, point-of-sale displays, packaging is the tobacco industry’s one remaining marketing tool.

Phillip Morris argues, to the point of threatening legal action, that the move violates its intellectual property rights. Brands take years of investment to build and cigarettes have the highest brand loyalty of any consumer product. A brand’s core elements are its visual properties, shape, colour, imagery and the emotions these evoke.

For years cigarette packs have acted as mini-billboards of dreams, and sole brand ambassadors. There’s no denying that removing these visual components is encroaching on intellectual property rights but in a battle of good versus evil, should this weapon be removed?

The Australian government hopes the new regulations will rid cigarettes of their glamorous past and sever the emotional connection with the consumer, but it ignores the notion that brands exist beyond the visual arena. For established customers, many of whom smoke the same brand of cigarettes their entire lives, the connections are deep- rooted. So long as the name of the product remains, the brand lives on.

There’s no doubt brands need reinforcement, and without frequent visual communication their messages will fade.

The move will restrict the formation of new brand relationships, a vital point as the majority of people start smoking at a young age – the average in New Zealand is 14.

However, children will always be exposed to the product and the associations that come with it. At its most basic, branding merely differentiates between products. Who will sever the emotional connection to cigarettes as a product?

This is one battle in a long and complex ethical war. A win for the authorities will ensure that society is no longer endorsing smoking; in practice people will still smoke.

A consumer’s relationship with a brand will simply move away from the visual arena and focus more on the product itself. Smell, taste and ritual – the building blocks of addiction – will be amplified.

Cigarettes may be stripped bare but branding is merely this devil’s disguise.

It’s the demon itself that next needs to be tackled head-on.

Emma Parnell is an Auckland graphic designer and blogs at www.longwhiteclouddesign.com.