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Study: In 1991, tobacco companies saw war as a marketing opportunity

A study published in July in the American Journal of Public Health looked at internal tobacco company documents to determine if marketing efforts were aimed at servicemembers during the Gulf War.

Researchers found tobacco companies saw the conflict as a commercial opportunity and targeted servicemembers with free cigarettes, direct advertising, phone cards and homecoming parties.

The military, which often viewed the tobacco companies as benefactors, restricted the activity at times but frequently allowed it, according to “Everywhere the Soldier will Be: Wartime Tobacco Promotion in the U.S.”

Tobacco companies began producing and shipping free cigarettes within the first month of the war.

One company sent 10,000 cartons via the Department of Defense and others were on deck with 42,000 before the DOD acknowledged the free cigarettes were against policy and blocked further shipments, according to the study’s two researchers, Elizabith Smith and Ruth Malone, who are on staff at the University of California’s Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, San Francisco.

Barred from providing free cigarettes, tobacco companies turned to branded merchandise such as baseball caps and playing cards.

“RJ Reynolds noted that ‘troops in Saudi Arabia definitely know that Camel Joe is behind them’ as they had received ‘over 5,000 packs of Camel playing cards … [and] a variety of premium items including sunglasses, audio cassettes and cup cozies,’” the study said.

During Desert Storm, the DOD bent the rules and allowed RJ Reynolds to advertise its logo on the cover of magazines donated to servicemembers despite rules against direct advertising, Smith and Malone found.

In another marketing campaign, Philip Morris distributed “Marlboro Holiday Voice Cards,” voice recordings sent to servicemembers downrange from families and loved ones. The company said its goals were positive publicity for Marlboro, brand recognition among young adult smokers and influence of a “broad base of opinion leaders,” according to the study.

The voice cards triggered a mild rebuke from the DOD, which reminded the company that ads directly identifying a tobacco product were not allowed. Meanwhile, the cards got Philip Morris about 94 million “media impressions”, television coverage around the world and a stream of goodwill letters from the public, the researchers said.

One military wife wrote a letter to Philip Morris saying she had asked her husband to quit smoking but changed her mind after using the voice card.

“If we ever get to see him again, I don’t believe I will ever fuss about it again,” the study quoted the woman.

Cigarette companies also saw an opportunity in the end of the war. Philip Morris executives said they were “keenly interested in capitalizing on the successful military operation” and “continuing the association we started last year with the troops.”

“Over forty locations now have welcome home signs in place featuring Marlboro brand identification,” a military sales manager said in June 1991, according to the study. The company also produced the largest homecoming event for Desert Storm at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and similar events in Germany featured “extensive signage for Marlboro,” the study said.


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