Thursday 6 October 2011

Stanton Glantz: Clueless clown

"..and then divide by the number you first thought of..."

It is a rare month when Stanton Glantz, doctor of mechanical engineering and professor of something-or-other at the University of San Francisco, does not publish some advocacy-based junk in a low-grade public health journal. The old fellow has many imitators these days, but efforts like this from the forthcoming issue of Tobacco Control show that he will not give up his crown without a fight.

Movies with smoking make less money

Stanton A Glantz, Jonathan R Polansky

Objective: To determine the relationship between presence of smoking in films and total box office receipts.

The conclusion of this study is rather given away by the title. By reviewing a whole load of films, Glantz found that movies which depicted smoking made l3% less money than those which didn't. The methodology was as follows:

...we compared the reported box office gross receipts (in 2010 dollars) of the 1316 films, with and without tobacco imagery, that ranked among the top 10 in ticket sales in any given week of their ‘domestic’ (USA and Canada) theatrical release between 2002 and 2010.

What a pitiful thought it is that someone in California has been paid to watch over a thousand movies to look out for a glimpse of tobacco smoke. And how tragic it is that Glantz keeps the resulting dossier in his office to be whipped out for studies like this. Nevertheless, the methodology is not unreasonable and we shall assume—possibly naively—that the basic conclusion is sound.

The question is: So what? No one has ever claimed that directors portray smoking to boost sales. It is an artistic decision which reflects a real world in which 1 in 5 people smoke. Surely Glantz is not going to insist—as he does with smoking bans—that cow-towing to tobacco controllers is going to be good for business?

Fear not, dear reader. Even Stan is not prepared to mistake correlation and causation so grievously (although it surely won't be long before advocates use this study to tell Hollywood: "Get rid of smoking in your films and you'll boost sales by 13%"). He does not claim that smoking in films is the cause of lower revenues. He does not explore what the actual reasons may be, but it seems likely that smoking is more common in indie films, gritty dramas, European releases and other movies which tend to make less money than big budget cartoons and family blockbusters.

Since there is no cause-and-effect here, what is the point of the study? For Stan, the point is that Hollywood has nothing to fear from his SmokeFree Movies ruse because a lack of smoking on the screen does not put off punters.

One hypothesis to explain the persistence of high levels of smoking in US films is that smoking pays off at the box office.

Er, no it isn't. As far as I'm aware, nobody has ever made such an argument and it is telling that Glantz does not provide a reference for this claim. Nobody seriously believes that people are specifically attracted to films which show smoking, nor is anyone deterred from seeing films which do show smoking. It's irrelevant at the business end. This is purely an issue of artistic freedom versus censorship.

Having constructed his straw man, Glantz demonstrates that it is false. Well done him. However, while he shows that tobacco imagery has no effect on box office takings, he inadvertently manages to show that his SmokeFree Movies scheme would financially damage the movie industry.

This study shows why movie studios tend to push for a PG-13 rating: such movies make 18% more at the box office compared ones with an R rating.

This is the real point of SmokeFree Movies. The purpose is not merely to restrict smoking in the movies to R rated films. The purpose is to coerce movie studios into getting rid of all smoking from their films for fear of losing their PG rating and, therefore, a significant proportion of their audience.

Under Glantz's regime, the makers of The Simpsons Movie or Avatar would have to think very carefully about whether they wished to maintain their artistic vision or maintain their PG rating. If they say "screw these cranks, the film stays as it is" then they will lose their PG rating and, therefore, will lose money—to the tune of 18%, according to Glantz, although this gap may not be entirely due the classification status.

What Glantz demonstrates in this study is that the presence or absence of smoking has no effect on box office takings (no one ever thought it did), but that the SmokeFree Movies plan will lead to a significant loss in box office takings if directors choose not to capitulate to the anti-tobacco fanatics.

Glantz, however, comes to exactly the opposite conclusion in his new study:

...implementing an R rating for smoking to remove it from youth-rated films will not conflict with the economic selfinterest of producer-distributors.

Garbage. R ratings have a negative effect on sales. The SmokeFree Movies plan will lead to more films being given an R rating. Therefore, the SmokeFree Movies plan will very much "conflict with the economic self-interest of producer-directors."

The only way to escape this financial damage will be for film-makers to remove every hint of smoking from their films. That is what Glantz wants, of course, but if they refuse—as they have every right to do—they will be penalised at the box office. This is blackmail, pure and simple. Comply or die. If directors refuse to cleanse their films to suit the zealots they risk losing millions of dollars. No wonder Hollywood has consistently told them to sod off.


jredheadgirl said...

"What a pitiful thought it is that someone in California has been paid to watch over a thousand movies to look out for a glimpse of tobacco smoke."

Lord have mercy...What an understatement. California has the 2nd highest unemployment rate in the country, the state is BROKE, we don't have enough $$$ to house prisoners, and there have been MASSIVE cuts to the schools and to the disabled....and THIS guy gets to keep his job? The system (ie., our govt officials colluding with special interests behind the scenes with OUR $$)is corrupt, from the top down; that's what folks should be protesting (in my humble opinion).

"This is purely an issue of artistic freedom versus censorship."

You've got that right Chris. Spot on! I hope that Hollywood tells him to, er, excuse me, f*ck off. Maybe they should make a movie about him. That would really stick in his

jredheadgirl said...

One more thing...I have really been enjoying your book:-)

Anonymous said...

Stirling performance Mr Glantz.
Absolutely Sterling.
Te he.
Your real victims are running out of money to pay the taxes to keep your branch of hmm.... hmm.... "science".

Michael J. McFadden said...

Wonderful analysis Chris!

Glantz's publicized vision, of parents judiciously refusing to allow their children to see movies that have a two-second scene that includes a table with an empty ashtray sitting on it, is of course just the poor man's deranged fantasy.

But why does such craziness seem to produce so much in the actual sane world (such as it is)? I think the answer boils down to money. I don't know if Glantz has ever actually made fully public how much money he gets for this stuff, but I *do* have a memory of at some point running across figures on the order of ten to twenty million dollars for SmokeFreeMovies. Unfortunately I don't know the provenance of those memories so I can't vouch for them, but if anyone else knows some details it would be good to share.

Orwell always assumed that only the government would have the power to control the media to such an extent that population brainwashing could occur. I think the antismoking movement has shown that it takes far less than a full blown government to do the job: all you need is enough of the right kind of money going to the right kind of people who can skillfully mold the media coverage of a topic.

After that it's just a case of the tail wagging the dog.


TheFatBigot said...

How does anyone know whether smoking is depicted in a film until they have seen it?

By that time the box-office statistics are set.

In principle there could be a knock-on effect of offended cinema-goers warning other delicate flowers not to view a particular film because it glorifies the consumption of tobacco products by way of burning. And how likely is that scenario?

If anyone thinks it accords with real life they really must live very strange lives.

Anon1 said...

Stantonitis Glands also has his name (this time as a Professor of Medicine) on this “study” (mathematical modelling)

Projected effects of tobacco smoking on worldwide tuberculosis control: mathematical modelling analysis

The shameless shyster and mentally-disturbed Glands is certainly prolific. Obscene amounts of funding, a childish disregard for the rules of causal and statistical inference, neurosis, bigotry, incompetence, and a dumbed-down academia/media/government/public make for prolific “research”.

Stantonitis, the smooth-operator mechanical engineer, can seamlessly transition between Kardiology, Medicine, Film Censorship, Sociology, Developmental Psychology, and Economics, always producing – coincidentally, Stan would say - the “right” anti-tobacco conclusions.

Three cheers for Glands who is certainly a Man[ic] for All Seasons.

Anonymous said...

Anyone notice that not one cigarette was smoked in last night's drama, Hidden? A joint, yes, and some nudity. Is this so that the programme can be more easily sold to the USA, Canada, Australia, Singapore, New Zealand etc?

Carl V Phillips said...

Good analysis, Chris.
Just for the record, I think you were going for "kowtowing". "Cow-towing" is what happens when your cow stops working and you have to haul it into the shop for repairs. Actually, that is not so funny, since towing/dragging is exactly what the slaughter industry does to the poor cows who cannot walk. To make it funny again, someone needs to turn it into a cartoon graphic with Glantz in the cow role.