Friday 19 November 2010

Detoxifying the brand

The BMJ's Tobacco Control blog provides a good example of why top-down prohibitionist campaigns struggle on the internet. No doubt they've all seen the memo telling them about the importance of engaging with the online audience, but when your movement is fundamentally elitist, engaging with the wider world has its problems.

There is the issue of not having very much to say, even though—unlike 99.9% of bloggers—that is your job. To be fair, this is also true of corporations which decide it would be a swell idea to start a blog. More serious, perhaps, is the problem that you and your colleagues are less-than-typical members of society. This can be ignored whilst chatting over the salad bowl at a public health conference, where views differ by only small degrees, but when thrust into the wider world, the chasm between you and civil society suddenly becomes visible. If you start blogging, not only will people see you in your less guarded moments, but they will also be able to talk back at you.

A recent feature on the Tobacco Control blog highlighted these problems. 'Word wars and tobacco control: choose the winner' (the first entry for six weeks, natch) invited readers to suggest words to describe tobacco controllers and their opponents. This led to problems. Firstly, a number of smokers and libertarians offered up less-than-flattering words to describe the, er, tireless champions of public health, and, secondly, a number of supporters responded with such enthusiasm that they almost seemed to be doing a parody of the stereotypical swivel-eyed anti-smoking zealot.

The comments system were swiftly deleted, but the zealotry remains online (at the time of writing). And perhaps it is a parody. How else can we explain gems like this?

Tobacco company - Suicide facilitation organization.
Growth (noun) - A measurement of suffering and death achievement as well as mortal collateral damage
Passive smoking - Collateral human and animal carbon life form lethal damage
Tobacco executive - Government Licensed murderer

Or this...

Change tobacco industry financial reports to 'disease reports'

Or how about something from an ultra-PC feminist dissertation?

Lezak Shallat: In my experience, there is a real clash of discourses between the language we use in tobacco control and the language we should be using to reach out to potential (and much needed) allies in the women’s movement. This raises a linguistic and ideological barrier that impedes greater collaboration. A case in point is the concept of tobacco “control”. For the TC movement, the word “control” encompasses a strategy to focus on a product and not its users (smokers) by setting limits that protect the rights of non-users. Within the TC movement, there is little talk of “anti-tobacco” measures or policies. This abbreviated terminology is reserved for headlines and journalists. Among feminists, however, the word “control” raises hives. It is located at the opposite end of the spectrum from autonomy over one’s body and the right to decide for oneself about work, education, reproductive life and more. This idea is central to feminism, and has been successfully exploited by the tobacco industry as a concept to sell cigarettes. The discourses clash. Control vs. protection; freedom to chose vs. informed choice; promoting vs. exploiting aspirations of “autonomy.” These words carry ideological subtexts that hinder greater dialogue with the feminists about how to address smoking as a women’s health issue.

Keen to find out more about the author of this riveting prose, I did a quick Google search which turned up this page, which happened to be hosting a particularly unfortunate, but possibly apt, banner campaign.

I also turned up this page which—if you'll excuse another cheap giggle—explained that:

Although she was named Leza K. at birth, she dropped the space and changed her byline to Lezak Shallat after discovering that, in Spanish, the word "lesa," roughly translated, means "idiotic."

A wise move since she "writes about social justice issues from Latin America" and lives in Chile. Of course, if she lived in the English-speaking world, the name Leza wouldn't be funny at all, would it?

And how about this from the real-life prohibitionist "Terence A. Gerace, Ed.M., M.A., Ph.D." (Who feels the need to put that many letters after his name on a blog comment?)

The terms Big Tobacco, tobacco industry, and major tobacco companies should be eliminated in favor of “toxic-tobacco companies” or “toxic-tobacco industry”. None of the former terms provides the true negative denotation that “toxic-tobacco companies” and “toxic-tobacco industry” do. Placing “Big” in front of Tobacco blunts tobacco’s negative associations. “Big” has a positive connotation as evidenced by McDonalds Corporation’s using “Big” in front of “Mac” and Frito-Lay placing “Big” before “Grab” to designate its large bag of snacks for individuals.

The idea that calling tobacco industries 'Big Tobacco' "blunts tobacco's negative associations" is plainly nonsense. The whole reason why the term Big Tobacco was coined by anti-smokers in the first place was to (a) perpetuate the David vs Goliath myth which portrays the anti-tobacco industry as brave pygmies against a behemoth, and (b) to rally those who instinctively dislike big business.

Getting rid of the 'Big' in Big Tobacco is fine with me. I've never understood why cigarettes from large companies should be worse than any others. But let's not pretend this is anything other than rebranding for the sake of it, and rebranding is always a sign of failure. Whether it's the post office changing its name to Consignia or socialists calling themselves liberals, the purpose of rebranding is to move away from a toxic brand.

The desire to rebrand is particularly urgent amongst tobacco controllers, since they are gripped by the delusion that the tobacco industry invented the very terms they are forced to use. This is sheer paranoia. I have heard it said that the industry invented the word 'anti-smoking' as a pejorative term. Apart from the fact that it is an entirely neutral word for people who are against smoking, the enemies of tobacco called themselves 'anti-smoking leagues' a hundred years ago. Lennox Johnson called himself an anti-smoker in the 1940s (see Chapter 4 of Velvet Glove, Iron Fist). If anti-smoking has a pejorative context today, it is because the public have seen what anti-smokers say and do, and they don't like it.

The anti-smoking movement (sorry—'tobacco control movement') would prefer it if everyone called smokeless tobacco 'spit tobacco' because it sounds more disgusting. They would no doubt prefer the tobacco industry to be known as 'the swine' and cigarettes to be known as 'Satan's death truncheons'. Alas for them, 'tobacco industry' is a more informative, balanced and descriptive term for an industry that makes tobacco, 'cigarettes' are small cigars that gained popularity in Revolutionary France and most smokeless tobacco products don't involve spitting. And since language is there to describe rather than propagandise, that'll just have to do.

UPDATE: As Leg-Iron reported last week, Junican submitted a spoof suggestion which succeeded in being slightly less deranged than the genuine offerings and now seems set to win him the "prize" of a one year online subscription to Tobacco Control (God knows what the second prize is).


Carl V Phillips said...

LOL. Chris, if everyone I read in the morning started trying to charge for their content, you and Krugman might be the only one I actually paid for.

So, what do they call you? Enemy Of The People like Liu Xiaobo.

Hmm, Krugman... Liu... maybe you should start campaigning for your Nobel prize.

Junican said...

I do not know if you are up to date about the BMJ blog, Snowdon.

Can I suggest a look at Leg Iron's blog of a few days ago?

Christopher Snowdon said...


I was in communicado when all that was going on. I've updated the post to mention your cracking submission.

Junican said...


I have seen your update. It is nicely phrased. But I do not like the word 'spoof'! My suggestion was absolutely genuine! (In the sense that, if I was an anti-smoker, that is what I would say). The fact that they chose my suggestion, which is bullshit, only goes to show how stupid and arrogant these BMJ people are.

There are a couple of problems.

The first, and most important, is how to expedite the decision as regards the winner. There is no timescale on the BMJ blog for this decision. Should I claim my prize? I do not really wish to push it, but I feel that I must. With 75% of the votes and no other contender, why should I not?

The second is how to make the most of their stupidity and arrogance. After all, these people are professors - clever people. There are complexities that I do not quite know how to deal with.

Perhaps I could claim my prize to begin with, and take it from there.

It really is very weird, Snowdon. I mentioned this stuff about the BMJ blog and my 'success' on Taking Liberties', but Simon C censored it. Thus, I am not sure whether or not I am personally at risk by taking on these people.

At the end of the day, all I want is for SHS to be recognised as the harmless substance that it is, in normal circumstances. I refuse to accept that I have harmed anyone at all by smoking in their presence - and that goes especially for my children, in whose presence I have smoked since they were born. That is what drives me.

As it stands at the moment, there is no timescale for the conclusion of voting on the best suggestion.

Magnetic said...

“God knows what the second prize is”

I think second prize is a 10-year online subscription to Tobacco Control.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the antis are playing word games because they're in a panic after seeing this:

Leg-iron said...

Junican - I'd take the prize, wait a week, then write back and tell them in makes lousy rolling paper and could they get it printed on Rizla?

You'd be able to hear the jaws drop from miles away.

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