Smoking tyres: How big tobacco refused to lose

February 19, 2024
Posted by
James Windle

Maybe we’ve been watching a little too much Mad Men recently, but there’s something about vintage advertising that is just so charming. From Volkswagen and their clever punchlines to iconic Coca Cola billboards, there’s so many examples of great advertising before the rules had even been written.

The most infamous campaigns came from the agencies working on the Tobacco accounts. The manufacturers and product itself were unethical - that’s not up for debate. But looking at the campaigns and strategies, we can’t help but admire them.

Let’s take a trip down memory lane.

Rewind to the late 1960’s. Leo Burnett’s Marlboro man was still flying high. But, executives over at Philip Morris knew that what goes up, must come down.

Competition was becoming an increasingly large threat. Major brands like Camel, Winfield and Newport crowded the marketplace with their own influential campaigns.

In addition to increasing competition, this period saw the introduction of the Surgeon General’s warning, a blanket ban on TV and radio commercials, and restrictions on smoking in public spaces.

Paired with a sea of scathing health studies, this should have been threatening to Marlboro’s reign. Yet in reality, it only fuelled more innovation. This period forced Marlboro to look for new opportunities. Leading this charge was John Hogan, an Australian Advertising Executive who first honed his craft as an intern at Nestle before working in the top agencies across London.

Combining his passion for motorsport with Marlboro’s goal of becoming an international brand, Hogan turned to the booming world of Formula 1. More than just performance cars and high speed thrills, he saw a canvas for what would later become some of the most successful marketing of the 20th century.

In 1973, Hogan led Marlboro’s move to become a major sponsor of the sport. Reflecting on his now historic move, Hogan told MotorSport Magazine, “we could see that [tobacco] advertising was coming to an end and we needed to make ourselves visible… F1 was a way of doing that on the international stage. We were trying to do it before the black curtain came down.”

Trackside advertising, vehicle liveries and even team uniforms were unable to escape Hogan’s reach. The sport was consumed, as were the general public. This partnership not only achieved Marlboro’s goal of reaching an international audience, but strategically positioned the brand alongside some of the most revered figures of the period. I don’t think there is a man alive who isn't just a little envious of the swagger of ‘76 champion James Hunt, recently played by Chris Hemsworth in the box office hit ‘Rush’.

Make no mistake, this association didn’t happen by accident. Tobacco companies, and advertising executives like Hogan, had mastered the art of selling the lifestyle and not the product.

Through influential figures, real and fictional, cigarette companies drove strong growth in the era of tightening advertising restrictions and serious health warnings.

To this day platform encompassing strategies are a staple of the world's most influential brands. Sports marketing and celebrity endorsements play on the same tactics and have been key in building brands like Nike and Redbull, who rarely run campaigns for specific products.

Instead, like Big Tobacco, these companies focus on the figures adjacent to their product and demographic. Nike and Redbull campaigns celebrate the achievements of great athletes, and in doing so, make the subtle connection between greatness and their products. While these campaigns are in different formats and feature drastically different products, the art of selling the lifestyle remains.

The good news? You don’t have to create our generation's Marlboro man or write a Tiger Woods sized check to harness these principles for your own brand - although we did hear Tiger is out of a contract…

Rather, partnering with content creators and influencers on leading social platforms makes this type of marketing more accessible than ever, and the value they offer can be immense.

In our current attention economy there is an abundance of advertising resulting in people feeling overwhelmed and tuning out. Different services, products and events, all vying for consumers to take action. In fact, a 2007 study by research firm Yankelovich estimated people saw 5,000 ads every day on average. Today experts believe that it could be as high as 10,000.

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How much of that can we take?

This is where influencer marketing wins. Like James Hunt smoking a Marlboro on the podium after a race, these campaigns don’t look like advertising at all - their natural and unpolished feel is the complete opposite of your traditional high budget TVC.

Influencer marketing wins by not selling the product, but the lifestyle. More storytelling. More real experiences. More genuine connection.

Playing to what consumers want to be rather than trying to tell them what to buy.

Depending on how you structure them, influencer campaigns can cut through and actually move consumers along the marketing funnel - what follows is the email sign ups, enquiries, sales and new deals closed.

Regardless of your circumstances, there is something to take away from these lifestyle-focused marketing campaigns.
With a little creativity, elements can be distilled, adapted or transformed into your own marketing that inspires action, because as Ogilvy said, you can’t bore people into buying.

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