CHENNAI: Until the ban on all tobacco advertising - direct and surrogate - came into effect in 2004, India’s tobacco companies used to spend up to Rs 300 crore on inveigling themselves into the affections of Indians. Where has all that money gone? Today, India’s cigarette duopoly, ITC and Godfrey Phillips, which together account for 80 per cent of the cigarette sales in India, limit themselves to ‘at point’ advertising and market innovations to push their brands.
From caressing the lips of hot models and keeping the company of the country’s most popular sportsmen, cigarette industry has come a long way, baby.
Nifty advertising was always crucial for India’s tobacco companies in selling cigarettes the country’s choicest demographies, namely, upwardly mobile men and women. In their heyday, cigarette companies positioned their brands as lifestyle products with a dose of sex appeal thrown in.
A common element in the cigarette companies’ promotional tactics - now banned of course - was to associate the sticks with style and machismo. Thus did we see ads in the 1950s showing languorous males exhaling lazily as their women looked approvingly on.
While the bells began to toll for the industry in the US in the 1960s -- with the US surgeon general in 1964 mandating dire warnings on cigarette packs - it was still boom time in India. Cigarette brands styled themselves as aspirational products. In 1952, India produced 2,000 crore cigarettes. That figure quadrupled in the next 30 years.
When there was a dip in production between 1985 and 1992, the industry turned to sports promotion to pull it out of the slump and production touched the 10,000 crore mark by 2000.
Before the dark days were nigh, the cigarette industry used nifty advertising to associate itself with positive values like style, adventure, romance and even good health (sports!) ITC’s long-lived and memorable Made for Each Other campaign, launched in 1965 for its flagship Wills brand, presented it as the essence of a nuclear family.
As research scholars R Bansal, S John and P M Ling say in a study of cigarette advertising at the turn of the millennium, tobacco companies sought to associate smoking with aspiration: “the premium brands targeted the higher SES market using tangible images of westernisation and affluence whereas the low-priced segment advertisements invited smokers to belong to a league of their own and “rise to the taste” using intangible images.”
It’s an irony that Shiben Dutt of Hindustan Thompson Associates penned the catchy phrase the same year cigarette manufacturers in the USA were required to carry the warning ‘cigarette smoking maybe hazardous to your health’ on every pack.
The Made for Each Other campaign tore down the stigma associated with cigarettes and went on to establish a lifestyle connect in the Indian market, even holding best couple contests under that slogan. Taking ITC’s lead, other brands like Four Square (Live Life Kingsize) and Gold Flake (Smoothness and Satisfaction) started associating themselves with the good life.
A bit later, Vazir Sultan Tobacco’s Charms broke new ground by associating the denim-packed cigarette with freedom (the Spirit of Freedom).
Bollywood was no less crucial in promoting cigarettes as style statements. In 1989, Jackie Shroff featured in a Charminar ad with the slogan ‘It takes a Charminar to satisfy a man like you’. A decade or more earlier, Amitabh Bacchan made bidis the signature of working class rebellion in Deewar. What was once a vice used to characterize the villain in Bollywood movies became a hero thing in the 1990s. According to a WHO report, smoking by film protagonists rose from 27 per cent in 1991 to 53 per cent in 2000.
The other big prong in the industry’s strategy was sports sponsorship, modeled after big sporing events in the West, of course. In the 1980s, VST became the first corporate company to sponsor Indian cricket under the moniker of Charminar Challenge. Sports of the upwardly mobile classes, like motor sports invariably had a cigarette sponsor. ITC’s Wills became the official sponsor of the Indian cricket team in 1993 and bankrolled the Cricket World Cup in 1996.
This was the period when cigarette smoking broke majorly into new demographies and consumption steepled. A study by the Indian Medical Association found that smoking showed a five-fold increase among children during the World Cup tournament in 1996!.