Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer There Was Smoke, But Were There Mirrors?

By Jim Hanas

JUNE 29, 1998:  If there’s one thing tobacco companies and anti-tobacco activists disagree on – and Lord knows there’s at least one – it’s the effects of advertising.

That fact was vividly demonstrated last Friday at The Peabody when RJR Nabisco chairman Steven Goldstone addressed the annual convention of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a trade organization for African-American newspapers – his first such appearance since the Senate snuffed out the tobacco bill last week.

“I saw yesterday in the newspaper that Senator McCain says that the many thousands of Americans who called Washington to complain about his bill were simply ‘parroting’ an industry line – that is, mindlessly repeating whatever they saw in ads on TV,” he told the conventioneers, after duly reminding them of tobacco’s advertising ties to NNPA papers. “I’ve got news for him. The people of this country are not parrots.”

Maybe and maybe not. Those in attendance, however, clearly were not. During the brief question-and-answer session, there wasn’t a softball in sight. Goldstone was asked why RJR targeted cigarettes toward African Americans more vigorously than its other, non-carcinogenic products, and about company memoranda encouraging the targeting of African Americans because of their “loose morals.”

Goldstone responded with a cruel but terribly consistent logic: Advertising can’t make anyone do anything. It’s benign information, and to deny it to African Americans or any other group would be wrong, even discriminatory. “You have to come to a judgment about whether your people are intelligent enough to make a decision for themselves,” he said. “Information is not dangerous, it’s vital.”

Later, he suggested that the assembled publishers should be offended by the very idea that advertising, just because it appears in their publications, is considered “targeting.” For big tobacco, targeting simply does not exist.

Nonetheless, targeting is what led to the vilification of cigarette companies in the first place. Cigarettes are legal, but underage smoking is not, and the tobacco industry’s alleged practice of preying on the “kids” is what has given anti-tobacco forces their current leverage. For the latter, advertising is more than just information. It has the power to make teens smoke and to kill bills in the Senate.

There is no doubt that the tobacco industry’s $40 million media-blitz was a stroke of genius, transforming a public health issue into a taxation issue in a matter of weeks. And there’s nothing better for making Americans hate something than calling it a tax.

But did it work? There were different answers, even in Sunday’s Commercial Appeal. Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot – citing a poll taken in April, the month the blitz began – claimed that voters were already predisposed against the bill. A story from The Boston Globe, on the other hand, cited an eleventh-hour poll that “ran counter to nearly every poll on the tobacco issue” and showed that public opinion had turned and induced several Republican senators to do the same.

Unfortunately, advertising – like the media generally – is an unknown quantity. Credited with enough power, it can explain just about anything.

Still, one gets the feeling that Goldstone and the other tobacco barons don’t believe their own spiel for a minute. There are the telling internal memos, of course, and the question of why an industry would spend $40 million on advertising if it didn’t think it could strong-arm public opinion. Truth is, tobacco and anti-tobacco probably have more in common than they let on when it comes to their views of the ever-manipulable public.

Bwaaawk! Polly want a Camel. No taxes. No taxes.

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