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PM ads 1 & 2

The first advertisement in a series that Philip Morris started running in Variety and other Hollywood publications in November, 2006 asking Hollywood not to feature its brands. Less than meets the eye?

In November 2006, Philip Morris USA issued a press release announcing an ad campaign in entertainment trade papers asking that its brands not be displayed on screen and also urging that “producers, directors and actors” use no tobacco in movies “directed at youth.”

Like other "youth smoking prevention" efforts by Philip Morris USA and other tobacco companies, this campaign seems designed to protect the tobacco industry's political flank and prevent meaningful policy change, not reduce youth smoking.

1. Has PM USA sponsored its brands in PG, PG-13 and R-rated movies since 1990?

PM USA’s press release says that its policy “since 1990” has been to “deny all requests for permission to use or display its brands in movies and television shows intended for general audiences.”

On March 1, 2005, anticipating the Smoke Free Movie Action Network's International Day of Action pre-Oscars® activity, PM USA publicly denied that it “pays for or endorses any product placement of its brands in movies.” The company also repeats that denial here.

What’s noteworthy? (1) Both of these carefully crafted statements are limited to “brands,” not unbranded placement, which is the bulk of tobacco imagery. (2) PM USA’s most recent statement confines itself to acknowledging a “policy;” it does not say if or how often this policy has been violated.

Under the MPAA rating system, the only rating for general audiences is “G.” How else does PM USA define “general audiences”? Does this explain Philip Morris appearances in more than two dozen PG and PG-13 films since 1990?

PM USA’s claims that it is a passive partner in brand display and always refuses permission to show its brands in films marketed to young people were defensive poses tobacco companies employed in the 1980s, when in fact once-secret documents show their agents actively pursued placement in films of all ratings.

2. Where’s Philip Morris International?

The press release is from Philip Morris USA. Philip Morris International, the larger Altria division directly implicated in paid product placement by once-secret tobacco documents, including the infamous placement of Marlboros in Superman II, has been conspicuously silent on the subject of placement. Movies are a transnational business with investment streams from all over. PM USA’s statements are not binding on PM International.

3. Product placement needs denial to work.

Companies want to foster the illusion that the directors and actors personally favor a brand. The growing public campaign against tobacco and brand display exposes these mechanisms. What better way to bolster the illusion of preference than to take Brer Rabbit’s approach: "No, no, please don't show our brands!" Subsequent brand use in films will appear all the more authentic.

If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences spotted these Brazilian cigarettes, would it be half as polite as Philip Morris USA? Ask the Academy's law firm, Quinn Emanuel.

4. Why don’t they just sue?

Philip Morris USA has never been shy about defending its trademarks. Its campaigns against counterfeit Marlboros take no prisoners. So its polite request to filmmakers might also signal that it will never take legal action. Is this because filmmakers can use trademarks under "fair use"? If the films are documentaries, educational, non-commercial, critical, then a case might be made — but these uses are extremely rare in Hollywood. Even if it did not have a strong claim, PM USA has often used legal action to wear down opponents. But not this time.

5. Don’t ask, don’t refuse.

Insurance underwriters of film productions’ Errors & Omissions policies are adamant about clearing every piece of intellectual property in any scene, from a ketchup bottle to a snatch of music — except for tobacco brands. The game is that nobody asks permission and the companies do not deny permission. PM USA’s ad about brand use won't change that game. In fact, it should further reassure the insurance companies.

6. Negative brand images have always been barred.

Why are tobacco brands such an exception in the multi-billion dollar world of product placement? Perhaps because Philip Morris and BAT make sure the brand image on screen will not harm their business. When brand display might hurt the brand image — as in Monster, based on the story of Aileen Wournos, a convicted serial killer — the character smokes from carefully non-branded, comped-up packaging. Indeed, the deal to put Marlboros in the genial Superman II specifically prohibited “negative” portrayals (see Clause 4 of the deal).

7. Market leaders don’t need brand display.

Since 1983, Philip Morris seems to have been aware that brand display matters very little to the market leader. It’s smoking on screen that counts. Little of the smoking on screen has ever been branded, yet most of the kids it recruits to smoke start with Marlboro anyway. As kids see less tobacco imagery in other media, screen appearance become even more precious to the industry.

Deconstruct PM

Deconstruct the PM campaign ...

8. Philip Morris USA is convicted of lying about youth marketing — why believe the company now?

In August 2006, federal judge Gladys Kessler ruled that Philip Morris USA, together with other tobacco companies, violated racketeering laws by creating a massive illegal enterprise to defraud the American people — and that this enterprise continues. The large-scale fraud described in the legal ruling includes PM USA’s denials that it marketed to youth.

The same Philip Morris USA now running ads urging Hollywood to leave its brands out of movies has also run ads questioning whether secondhand smoke causes lung cancer. The present ads are signed “Youth Smoking Prevention,” a registered trademark of Philip Morris USA. According to a published study, this same campaign’s television spots actually make teens who view them more likely to smoke.

9. Policy is the answer, not PR.

Health groups spent a decade informing Hollywood writers, directors, producers and studio executives about the impact their medium has on teen smoking: the problem only got worse. Without a uniform industry-wide policy, there will always be incentives to collaborate with tobacco marketers — and no studio will be willing to give up potential tobacco subsidies while others take advantage of them.

That’s why leading U.S. and international health authority have endorsed these four policy solutions:

Rate new smoking movies "R". Any film that shows or implies tobacco should be rated "R." The only exceptions should be when the presentation of tobacco clearly and unambiguously reflects the dangers and consequences of tobacco use or is necessary to represent the smoking of a real historical figure.

Certify no pay-offs. The producers should post a certificate in the closing credits declaring that nobody on the production received anything of value (cash money, free cigarettes or other gifts, free publicity, interest-free loans or anything else) from anyone in exchange for using or displaying tobacco.

Require strong anti-smoking ads. Studios and theaters should require a genuinely strong anti-smoking ad (not one produced by a tobacco company) to run before any film with any tobacco presence, in any distribution channel, regardless of its MPAA rating.

Stop identifying tobacco brands. There should be no tobacco brand identification nor the presence of tobacco brand imagery (such as billboards) in the background of any movie scene.

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