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Thursday, June 24, 1999 Published at 12:00 GMT 13:00 UK

Advertising by stealth: Tobacco's last gasp?

Who, if asked to whistle Bach's Air on a G String, could do it?

Probably not as many as could carry the tune to the Hamlet cigar adverts.

Although far better known for Hamlet than Bach, they are the same tune. Testimony indeed to the power of tobacco adverts to influence culture.

Now virtually all tobacco advertising is to be banned. Magazine pages will be devoid of unexplained pieces of slashed purple silk, billboards in busy streets are to shed their images of vast open stretches of Americana.

The government believes the ban will help cut the number of people taking up smoking. Tobacco companies disagree, claiming advertising only encourages existing smokers to swap brands.

Certainly cigarette advertising makes a strong impression - tobacco brands are among the best known names in the world.

But the authorities' battle is far from won. Nothing excites advertising creatives more than a challenge, and in this case it could be to find ways around the regulations.

[ image: Hugh Grant in Notting Hill - later seen with book of the next film]
Hugh Grant in Notting Hill - later seen with book of the next film
Product placement is one option. The practice of slipping brand names into films is well established.

Think how Tom Cruise used an Apple Powerbook in Mission:Impossible, how Michael J Fox ordered a Diet Pepsi in Back to the Future, or how Hugh Grant read Captain Corelli's Mandolin in Notting Hill (the next project from the film's producers).

Yet until now, cigarette firms have agreed not to indulge and experts think this voluntary arrangement will hold.

There is another possibility - think Marlboro clothing, Camel boots, or Benson & Hedges coffee.

An exception to the new EU rules allows advertising to continue for products sold "in good faith" before July 1998.

John Carlisle, of the Tobacco Manufacturers' Association, said a lot of trademarks had been registered by tobacco companies before the date.

But the anti-smoking pressure group Ash foresees problems.

Director Clive Bates said: "Neither an advert for Marlboro cigarettes nor an advertisement for Marlboro clothing necessarily features cigarettes or clothes."

[ image: Jacques Villeneuve in Spain, 1997. Tobacco's influence will live on.]
Jacques Villeneuve in Spain, 1997. Tobacco's influence will live on.
A wide-open scene of America - the kind of photograph used by Marlboro - could be used to promote the company's outdoor clothing.

"This whole area is full of horrible loopholes."

The regulations require adverts for non-cigarette products do not look like tobacco advertisements. But in an age of subtle images, what does a tobacco advert look like? Often the only give-away is the health warning.

Ironically, it could mean the only way adverts for Marlboro or Camel products may be legitimate is if they carry no health warning.

Mr Bates said it was possible these adverts could even run on television.

Trouble brewing

One solution might have been for a New Zealand-style blanket ban on advertising cigarette brands. But part of the reason the EU backed away was because of Douwe Egbert's, which is better known in Holland for tobacco than coffee.

Mr Bates thought the government would have to revisit the legislation to tie up loopholes.

But on the other side of the world, there is a feeling that matters have gone too far.

Bill Ralston, editor of Auckland-based magazine Metro, unexpectedly found himself on the wrong side of the law with a cigar review alongside those for whisky, books, and restaurants.

More than a mere review

A government health compliance officer said the cigar review broke the law, and threatened a NZ$10,000 fine.

He protested, claiming it was merely a review.

"Ah ha. No. Wrong, said the woman from the ministry. . .It is not a review, it is an advertisement," he wrote.

"Nope. Wrong, I replied. It's a review. No-one pays for it, we derive no income from it, it is not an advertisement, and it is not booked, placed, or paid for by anyone for the purposes of selling a product."

But under the strict NZ law, any words "used to encourage the use or notify the availability or promote the sale of any tobacco product" was illegal.

Ralston wrote: "Should you write a letter to the editor extolling the joy of smoking nicotine, it would be considered an advertisement and, accordingly, liable for prosecution. It would, however, be entirely permissible to write a letter favouring the smoking and use of the illegal substance marijuana."

All in all, a situation which in previous times, might have been a suitable premise for a certain advert featuring a certain tune by J.S. Bach.

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