Seed to Cigarette? How Tobacco Companies Use “Cause Marketing” to Increase Sales

American Spirit’s promotion of their natural tobacco products: a spin-off on a common cliché.

Tobacco companies, including Grizzly, Marlboro and American Spirit, frequently promote their efforts to support charitable initiatives. Recently, this has become common in marketing across all industries. Corporate charity is increasingly celebrated as a happy solution to multi-dimensional problems. Consumers purchase ordinary goods, but also can feel proud of themselves, knowing an amount of the price they paid will support causes like organic farming, sustainable agriculture, or fair wages. Corporations promote their efforts with “cause marketing,” and it looks like a win-win-win scenario for the consumer, the industry, and the greater good. But unfortunately, there is underlying criticism that this simplistic system allows companies to promote charity without engaging in much of it, discourages individuals from supporting other more productive charity efforts, and promotes irrational and excessive consumption of unnecessary products.

These problems are especially relevant to cause marketing by the tobacco industry: conglomerates of companies who, no matter their charitable contributions, are in the business of selling lethal products to consumers invariably against consumers’ greater self-interest. Evidence suggests cause marketing appeals disproportionately to young people, ages 18-24, an important and problematic audience for the tobacco industry.

The theory of moral licensing suggests that, in response to making a decision we see as morally ‘good,’ we will often overcompensate by subsequently allowing ourselves to engage in a destructive behavior. It seems the tobacco industry is especially aware of this idea. Tobacco companies have a long history of using cause marketing to promote their products. The practice continues today.

This month, the American Spirit cigarette brand sent out an email promoting their mobile coupons as an eco-friendly alternative to paper coupons, disregarding that cigarette butts resulting from every purchase would only contribute to global waste when they were discarded. In fact, recent research sponsored by another cigarette company, Marlboro, in order to promote their own eco-friendly campaign, found cigarette butts account for 32 percent of all litter.

Grizzly promotes their initiative as simplistic and masculine.

Grizzly smokeless tobacco spent the summer promoting “Grizzly Outdoor Corps” which supports habitat conservation and population management with the aim of preserving hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation areas, and Marlboro cigarettes recently wrapped up their “Stand for the Land” promotion aimed at better cigarette butt disposal. This campaign encouraged smokers to contact Marlboro about public locations in their area that did not allow easy disposal of cigarette butts. Marlboro would subsequently distribute disposal cans to those locations. This example, while helpful to some degree, ignores the reality that the surest way for smokers to decrease the burden of cigarette waste would be to stop purchasing cigarettes all together.

Perhaps the most ironic example of the tobacco industry’s perverse marketing tactics is American Spirit’s promotion of their organic tobacco products. Across their website, the company portrays leafy images and happy farmers tilling sunny fields. Their products, promoted as organic, natural, and simplistic, indirectly imply American Spirit cigarettes may offer the same types of health benefits that accompany other organic food products. It isn’t until you come upon the cleverly disguised Surgeon General’s warning hovering inconspicuously at the bottom of the page, that you understand “Organic tobacco does NOT make a safer cigarette” and “Natural American Spirit cigarettes are not safer than other cigarettes.” They sure make it easy to miss the important point.

Sources: Marlboro, Grizzly, American Spirit, International Journal of Communication

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