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Design has become central to the debate about cigarettes. But its role there is mirrored elsewhere, writes Leigh Paterson.
Does anyone smoke any more? The old saying goes that no-one likes a quitter, but when it comes to cigarette smoking the Ministry of Health is the exception that proves the rule. The huff and puff regarding tobacco in New Zealand seems to be a constant balancing act between health and economics.
It is an area in which communication design has had a transformative social role, as cigarette packaging design has become a battleground in which the dangers and risks are graphically displayed in threatening declarations: it will wreck your looks, harm your baby and even enfeeble your sexual prowess.
There are clearly large social costs and associated issues. Health is a primary focus but there is also an impact in terms of crime. Tax revenues are part of the picture. Many commentators have gone as far as to describe the rising cost of cigarettes as a type of "poor tax". How design is situated within this problem is interesting.
Design can play an integral part in the success and failure of any product. Graphic design can save lives or sell more lipsticks. It is a phrase I have repeated often to people to explain the spectrum of influence that design has in a consumer-focused world. Brands and products are made for audiences, to be consumed by people. It is here that design can have a problematic function, where public health and design for profit collides, where anti-smoking campaigns operate simultaneously with the sale of a harmful product.
If evidence were needed of graphic design’s powerful ability to convince people to consume something that might not be good for them, the "plain packaging" stoush provides it. In 2012 British American Tobacco New Zealand (BATNZ) responded to the threat to its traditional packaging with a campaign unprecedented in New Zealand. The company attempted to give its "struggle" a voice by lobbying the public with a marketing campaign called "Agree Disagree". It aimed to convince the public that plain packaging in New Zealand threatened tobacco companies’ brand autonomy and disrupted "business as usual". Removing all design elements that reflected and communicated BATNZ brands was a threat, so a campaign was launched to promote and protect them.
But can you wipe out cigarette smoking entirely by removing all the graphic signs and symbols connected to a brand?
Will removing all graphic design from the outside of cigarette packaging actually stop people smoking or will the exorbitant price be the driver of change? What are the implications and ramifications for design when clean packaging is implemented in New Zealand and will this create a new smoking culture? Does this oxymoronically make smoking and the idea of it cooler and more desirable? A Muji-styled, minimalist no-brand situation? Would it then perhaps be illegal to print branding on the paper wrapped around the cigarette: is that allowed? The desire created by addiction and doing something you know is bad for you is powerful. Can banning the branding associated with smoking stub out its impact?
Smoking has a hold on people and is obviously addictive. But gone are the days of a tobacco company sponsoring fashion awards and tennis tournaments, gone are the days of a beer and a ciggie inside an actual bar. No longer are cigarettes described as "torches of freedom": a marketing ploy in the 1920s to encourage women to smoke. Are you even allowed to call your work break a "smoko" these days? There is a tangle between the social and commercial roles of design in relation to tobacco.
It is fascinating from a public relations perspective: how do you deal with the death from lung cancer of "Marlboro man" Eric Lawson, a prominent character and symbol of cigarette smoking in a plethora of tobacco advertising. It is beyond awkward.
Design invariably deals with seduction, creating connections between people’s desires and commercial products. It can create markets and provide the strategic communication that promotes harmful and damaging products, repositioning them as carefree and good for you. Design does not always tell the "truth". It doesn’t make economic sense, after all, to know that your washing powder is a bit hopeless. Branding and associated packaging often speaks to us in terms that are positive: so fresh, so clean! But that hasn’t stopped me from wondering what might happen if all packaging told the "truth". And perhaps that design should struggle with the question of telling the "truth" more often.
But the day-to-day truth is that I have noticed a relatively new social iteration of urban gleaning that is a result of cigarette smoking. If you stop and look hard enough in the centre of any major city these days you will see individuals swaying with stooped heads scanning for cigarette butts. If they can find enough, they will make a bumper, a cigarette from parts of a cigarette.
Historically, gleaning has been a form of social policy in which a small part of a crop was left, post-harvest, to be picked over by the disadvantaged. A modern equivalent is FoodShare. But this act of picking up butts in the street reflects the desperation of people addicted. It also shines a light on how we are dealing with smoking and the inconvenient truths it presents, and highlights a link between consumer habits and addiction. In contrast, during a recent conversation with a smoker, who went to great lengths to explain why he smoked, he declared; "I don’t smoke a whole pouch of tobacco and then wanna go and punch someone up".
The comment reveals the contradiction between acceptable marketing for alcohol and cigarettes, which is chalk and cheese.
Alcohol packaging offers few warnings about consumption. You have to look hard to find them. There is a pithy "drink responsibly" and a graphic symbol warning and policing the consumption of alcohol by pregnant women. Imagine if the alcohol industry were forced to air its dirty laundry in the same way the tobacco industry has.
If the same rules and regulations should apply to products that are harmful or have a detrimental social impact, then as well as alcohol, perhaps a case could be made for sugar. There is a strange double standard that exists in the way alcohol can still be marketed and attached without consequence to contemporary culture. That to me is sobering.
- Leigh Paterson is a lecturer in communication design at Otago Polytechnic.