Marketing Division

Nothing to see here

Words by Katie Hyder

From 1 December it will be illegal to sell cigarettes in Australia in anything other than a drab, olive-green package, adorned only with graphic public health warnings. But will plain packaging of cigarettes really deter people from buying them?

Next time you place something into your supermarket trolley, stop and think about the influences that led you to choose that product. Was it the price? Was it recommended to you? Are you already a loyal customer?

If you’re like most people, you will probably downplay any suggestion that you were influenced by the packaging.

‘The effect of packaging is more than we give credit for,’ says Deakin Graduate School of Business senior lecturer Dr Paul Harrison.

‘Most people would say packaging has no effect on their behaviour,’ he says, ‘but packaging leads to familiarity, which leads to more efficient decision making … so that the process of choice becomes automatic; we’re not conscious of how that packaging is affecting our behaviour.’

From 1 December this year, cigarette companies will no longer be able to display any branding on their products. Even the brand name will be relegated to a small, nondescript font, set on a bland olive-green package that is dominated by disturbing images of cancer.

When the High Court dismissed tobacco companies’ challenge to the new legislation last August, Attorney-General Nicola Roxon claimed victory, but dissenters argued that it was a step too far by regulators, that it would lead to a rise in black market trade, or that it simply wouldn’t work.

Dr Harrison, who has a background in consumer behaviour, believes plain packaging will work, but that this strategy will be another chink in the armour, rather than a silver bullet.

‘The mistake that everyone tends to make is that they think this is the one silver bullet. These are just incremental shifts over time – in the same way that, over time, the road toll has reduced because of a whole range of different legislative initiatives, plus the normalising of the behaviour which leads to societal pressure not to drink and drive,’ he says.

‘We won’t notice an instant effect, but it’s a contributing factor to changing norms around “is it ok to smoke?”. The strongest effect it will have is to prevent non-smokers from taking up smoking, and the secondary effect is that it will make it just that bit harder for very new smokers to continue the habit.’

In recent decades these changes have already had a dramatic effect, with smoking rates among Australian men dropping from a staggering
72 per cent in 1945 to around 16 per cent today.

‘The Australian market is a non-market now for cigarette companies. The big markets are in Asia where you have government‑owned cigarette companies promoting the product in government schools, along with very little in the way of restrictions on advertising and promotion in general. In Asia, smoking is still a major part of the culture, particularly among men,’ says Dr Harrison.

‘The reason cigarette companies challenged the legislation in Australia is because they want to avoid a domino effect: if Australia is able to do it, this becomes an international precedent.’

But the cigarette companies have not given up. Australia now faces challenges before the World Trade Organization (WTO). If it found against Australia, the WTO could impose trade sanctions on Australia if the Federal Government continues to impose the restrictions on packaging.

Whatever the WTO result, cigarette companies will continue to innovate with tactics such as brand diversification that’s designed to keep their brand top of mind, without advertising cigarettes, says Dr Harrison.

‘What you might see is tobacco companies purchasing property in brands, products and services that aren’t necessarily directly related to cigarette smoking, but still improve the strength of the brand.

‘The whole idea of branding is about familiarity so if you buy Dunhill perfume, even though people might ask what does that have to do with cigarettes, it gets the Dunhill name out there and it then becomes easier for a person to purchase that brand of cigarettes.’

As Dr Harrison points out, trying to keep the tobacco advertising genie in the bottle is only going to become more complex.

‘Banning advertising on television used to be the big fight, but the fact is, television is such a small part of the media menu for most people now,’ he says.

‘In the field of promotion, we now talk about Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC), which is about aiming to get your target market to see and respond to your brand at a whole range of touch‑points. So it becomes more difficult, as the media becomes more fragmented, to impose these kinds of bans. But if we understand more about consumer behaviour, message framing, and perception, we are in a better position to fight the next front of the battle.’

Find out more about the Deakin Graduate School of Business


Dr Paul Harrison
Deakin Graduate School of Business


Smoking in Australia*

  • In 1945, 72 per cent of men and 26 per cent of women smoked.
  • In 2010, 16.4 per cent of men and 13.9 per cent of women smoked.
  • In 2003 there were 15 511 smoking-related deaths in Australia.
  • The 2004–2005 National Health Survey showed the smoking rate among ‘professionals’ was 13.3 per cent; among ‘labourers and related workers’ the rate was 39.8 per cent.
  • In 2010, the highest rates of daily smoking among Australian men were in the 30–39 and 40–49 years age groups (both at 20.2 per cent) and for women, in the 40–49 years age group (18.8 per cent).

* Source: The Cancer Council

‘Most people would say packaging has no effect on their behaviour, but packaging leads to familiarity, which leads to more efficient decision making … we’re not conscious of how that packaging is affecting our behaviour.’

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30th October 2012