When the medium reflects the messenger

The web is an excellent medium for getting your viewpoint across on a complex subject. For tobacco companies it should be an ideal platform for explaining themselves to the world, but site builders are subject to the vagaries of national laws and attitude

Featured sites

Psst, do you want to see a cigarette advertisement on the web? Here’s how. Type in www.gauloises.com, tell the site you are Greek and voilà: a brandbuilding website aimed at youngsters. Pity those poor national legislators trying to control young people’s smoking. The web is worldwide: it is making a mockery of them.
Or rather a French company is using the internet to mock them. Three things to learn here. First the web can easily be used to flout national laws. Second, it will do so only if the builders want it to. Third, the builders are more likely to want it to if they come from certain parts of the world. Nowhere are national stereotypes reflected better than in tobacco industry sites. At one end is the self-flagellation of Philip Morris USA – its site could have been built by an anti-smoking group. At the other is the cheek of Gauloises-producing Altadis – the merged Seita of France and Tabacalera of Spain. In between is a mix of the mealy-mouthed, the defensive and the sensible – with one notable stereotype-toppling surprise from a US company.

Carriers of corporate information

What can a tobacco manufacturer do online? Well, it can provide the same corporate information as other large groups. British American Tobacco has more-than-competent sections for investors and journalists, and a good careers area. The two nonsense-named giants, Altadis and Altria, Philip Morris’s parent, are also strong, with the added excitement of searchable jobs databases. Gallaher and Imperial have much weaker sites, concentrating on investor information. The other major, Japan Tobacco, has a circa 1997 feel to its site; I shall leave it discreetly to one side.
BAT’s US subsidiary Brown and Williamson is intriguing because it also uses its site as a business-to-business portal. Get past the “virtual city” home page, and you can find hard information for tobacco growers, with crop reports and information on quota buyout.

An opportunity to explain

But the main use for a tobacco website should surely be in the fashionable area of corporate social responsibility, and particularly in ‘reputation management’. The web is an excellent medium for getting your viewpoint across on a complex subject. Great for tobacco companies – or is it? They have for years had no medium with which they can explain themselves to the world; and that I suspect has suited them. Now they do have an ideal medium, and too often they are tying themselves in knots as a result. In some ways I sympathise with the approach taken by Gallaher, Imperial and Japan Tobacco, which is to starve their sites of resources so they cannot offer more than the basics – absolute basics in Japan Tobacco’s case.

Stereotypical attitudes shape content

But where the web has been declared worthy of attention, the stereotypes manifest themselves. Altadis does not feel under much pressure to defend itself. Its attractive trilingual site does mention, near the bottom of its cigarette page, that smoking may not be too good for you, but has no health-related links on its home page. Visitors are encouraged instead to visit the culture section, where we learn that Altadis sponsors debates on geopolitics, sexual harassment and fear… issues well away from its own discomfort zone.
Americans are at the other extreme. Philip Morris USA has a strangely dowdy site built on the principle that if we are rude enough about ourselves, maybe other people will leave us alone. Nearly all the links are about health and responsible marketing, with a flashing home page banner proclaiming that “We strongly support legislation for meaningful FDA regulation of cigarettes.” The only place brands are named is to tell us how full they are of tar and nicotine.
Philip Morris International has vastly more than its domestic cousin: it is a masterpiece of localisation, with a shared template used for dozens of language. It is also a masterpiece of self-justification: it really doesn’t want to make cigarettes, but you know, someone has to. This for example in Frequently Asked Questions: Q: “What would your CEO do if he found his 10 year old daughter had been smoking?” A: “No parent wants their kids to smoke. And that goes for André Calantzopolous, our CEO… André is a parent himself.”
Brown and Williamson has plenty of health material too, though it delivers some of it with an element of fun. The “Top Secret” links brings us to a page that decodes to tell us that “smoking is dangerous to your health”. A clever way of getting a message to youngsters.
In the middle are the Brits, naturally. BAT has a good deal of material on smoking and health, but is not afraid of being robust. A new report on passive smoking, which gives comfort to tobacco companies, is publicised boldly at the top of the home page. An interesting contrast is with BAT Australia’s site (www.bata.com.au). Although it shares the template and much content with the global site, it has absolutely no mention of brands, no investor information, and no link with the bat.com. I would guess this is a reflection of Canberra’s tough legislation.

Few take on branding

Cigarette brand sites are rare indeed, although some carry the name without the tobacco. Dunhill is all about accessories; not a cigarette anywhere. I did find an incomplete (or perhaps complete but surreal) German site at www.bensonandhedges.de, but the only full brand sites I could locate were Gauloises.com and the Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company. Both are remarkable in their way. The first for sheer cheek – if it really is aimed at Greeks (or Montenegrans or Macedonians, who can also get in), why is it in French, German and English, and why does it fly a “Liberté toujours” banner on its home page? The second for the fact that it is a full-blown brand building site – from a subsidiary of the all-American RJ Reynolds – that dares to claim its cigarettes are quite good. “I never smoked a real cigarette until I smoked Natural American Spirit,” one testimonial says. I am no smoker, but I cannot help giving a small chirrup when I find anything that undermines the stereotype.

First published 04 June, 2003
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