Philip Morris Works on Its Image
Giant marketer is seeking to ingratiate itself with consumers at a time when its principal product is being excoriated more relentlessly than ever.
The Philip Morris Companies, the nation's No. 3 advertiser, which spends more than $2 billion a year, is undertaking an extensive, expensive multimedia campaign meant to help burnish its corporate image. The primary goal is to counter the critics who object to the company's tobacco operations, which under the names Philip Morris U.S.A. and Philip Morris International produce best-selling cigarette brands like Benson & Hedges, Chesterfield, L & M, Marlboro, Parliament and Virginia Slims.
But don't look for paeans to puffing or entreaties to "Come to where the flavor is" in the television commercials, posters and Web pages that make up the campaign, which has a budget estimated at $100 million. Indeed, smoking is not mentioned except in discussing efforts to limit cigarette sales to minors and statements on the company's Web site at www.philipmorris.com that smoking "causes lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema" and other conditions.
Rather, the campaign is focused on the charitable, philanthropic and social activism of Philip Morris divisions, particularly those like Kraft Foods and Miller Brewing that sell nontobacco products. The topics range from feeding the hungry and fighting domestic violence to helping victims of natural disasters and volunteer teaching. Many actors in the TV spots, all which include the words "Based on a true story" on screen, appear to be playing blue-collar or lower-income Americans, who make up a high percentage of smokers.
"What the advertising tries to do is talk about the fact we are more than a tobacco company and what we do to give back to our communities," said Steven C. Parrish, senior vice president for corporate affairs at Philip Morris in New York. He is overseeing the campaign, which carries the theme "Working to make a difference. The people of Philip Morris"; the ads are being created by Leo Burnett in Chicago, part of the Leo Group.
"The issues involving our tobacco business are creating a negative image of the company," Parrish said. "When people get a factual exposure to what the company is, what the company does, their perceptions begin to change."
The campaign is emblematic of a change of heart -- if not lungs -- among tobacco companies as they end years of silence or defensive attacks in response to castigation from opponents of smoking.
"We were saying 'No comment' in effect," Parrish said, "and 'No comment' turned out to be a powerful comment in the minds of a lot of people, letting us be defined by what others were saying."
The new tack plays to the public with low-key assertions of corporate beneficence and largess, presenting emotional rather than rational pitches infused with warmth, bonhomie and even occasional humor.
In addition to the television, poster and Internet elements of the Philip Morris campaign, the image-enhancement bids include appeals from the Lorillard unit of the Loews Corporation, some carrying the theme "New rules, new commitment"; a new magazine named CML The Camel Quarterly, custom-published for the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company unit of the RJR Holdings Corporation by Wink Media, part of the Time Inc. unit of Time Warner Inc., and a fanciful telephone recording featuring a deliberately perfervid announcer who declares: "We, the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation, are in love with you. We're a giant corporation and you make us feel like a little kitten." Brown & Williamson is owned by British American Tobacco P.L.C.
"We believe now more than ever that the more we openly and honestly discuss our company and what we're doing, people will have a better understanding of the facts and make up their own minds," Parrish said.
"We know people will be skeptical, questioning our motives," he added, "but we wanted to be as upfront and straightforward as we could."
Needless to say, Parrish was accurate in predicting the skepticism the campaign would generate.
"It doesn't fool anybody," said Martyn Straw, president at the Interbrand Corporation in New York, a corporate and brand identity consulting company.
"The public could say, 'If you really want to help people, the best thing you can do is stop selling cigarettes.' "
Also, "there's a difference between doing something and telling people you're doing something," Straw said. He offered a potentially more effective strategy: "Undertake the activities quietly and then do public relations at the local level, letting the media pick up the story themselves." Interbrand is owned by the Omnicom Group.
Philip Morris is "working really, really hard to buy respectability," said Bill Novelli, president at the National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids in Washington, an advocacy organization.
"That's important for employee morale," he added, particularly "among the Kraft and Miller Brewing people."
"It will be interesting to see if the company can climb up from the pariah status it now has," Novelli said. "I don't think this will do it."
John Garrison, chief executive at the American Lung Association in New York, offered another reason for the ads, which he dismissed as "a smoke screen to fool the American people into thinking Philip Morris is a good corporate citizen."
"They're trying desperately to improve their image in this country because of future litigation facing them," Garrison said. "They're thinking about future juries."
The advertising critic Bob Garfield, who writes for the trade publication Advertising Age, delivered a trenchant attack on the campaign last month. He summarized the gist of the ads this way: " 'Never mind that we've killed more people than Hitler. Don't forget all the good works we've done with our fine Miller Lite and Kraft Velveeta cheese-like product.' "
Philip Morris executives are sensitive to perceptions that the campaign is minimizing or playing down the company's tobacco operations.
"We don't want anyone to feel we are walking away from or hiding from our tobacco business," Parrish said. "We're prohibited from advertising any tobacco brands, but youth smoking is something we wanted to talk about."
One commercial in the campaign is centered on a program, encouraging retailers to demand identification from cigarette buyers.
That initiative is separate from another campaign, also with a budget of $100 million, aimed at dissuading children from smoking. Those ads are by Young & Rubicam Advertising in New York.