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Fallout from the Tobacco War

by Glen Emerson Morris

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Very little is being said in the press about the information health and consumer groups are posting on the Internet about the tobacco issue. This is unfortunate, because the tobacco war currently happening on the Internet will have profound long term effects on marketing, advertising, and media, not to mention politics.

The tobacco war is the first major demonstration of just how much the Internet is changing the basic balance of power between business, consumers, and government. As the first post-Internet consumer/business confrontation, this is uncharted territory; the public has never had this much information about a complicated issue available to it before.

In days prior to the Internet only a few thousand people would have been able to read the 50+ page tobacco settlement agreement reached by the attorneys general last year. The document is too long for magazines and newspapers to print in entirety, even if they wanted to, but it's well within size limits for distribution over the Internet. Within days after its release, the settlement was available for viewing or downloading from several private or consumer sponsored Websites. Even at this late date, few American magazines and newspapers have run a single sentence of the settlement agreement.

There is a striking similarity between the rise of private Internet Websites covering the tobacco war and the rise of CNN in covering the Gulf War. CNN rose to international prominence with its coverage of the war, in large part because its 24 hour all news format was better suited to cover that kind of story. The major networks were off the air at night when many key events took place, and they only offered limited news coverage during the day and evening. Like CNN, the private Websites covering the tobacco war have some basic advantages over their competition; their format allows large quantities of information to be easily and affordably distributed, and there are no advertisers to risk offending. Consumers are noticing.

Among the most prominent of the privately run tobacco information sites is This site is primarily composed of links to articles from major newspapers currently available on the Internet, and it functions much like an information clearinghouse, tracking a number of different trials. It also offers links to other tobacco resources (including the Minnesota Attorney Generals office,) links to other tobacco related Websites, a searchable archive of previous articles, and downloads of the settlement and other essential documents. Other sites include Action for Smoking and Health ( and the Putnam Pit (, which has been running transcripts of the Minnesota tobacco trial. Other anti-smoking groups are posting statistics on the relationship of tobacco industry campaign contributions and favorable votes on tobacco related legislation.

The credibility of advertising sponsored media will take a long term beating because of the tobacco scandal. Anti-tobacco groups have started posting statistical studies comparing the number of tobacco ads in magazines and the number of tobacco related health articles appearing in those same magazines. Magazines with significant tobacco advertising were shown to have run far fewer, if any, articles on tobacco related health issues than magazines with little or no cigarette advertising. It's no wonder some consumers are questioning whether advertiser sponsored news can ever be trusted to serve as the public's primary news source.

Advertising agencies are also beginning to take a beating because of the tobacco scandal. The state of Florida has named several major advertising agencies and PR firms as "Tobacco Industry Supporters" in their new anti-teen smoking program ( It is not meant to be a favorable distinction. Over the next few years there will be increasing pressure on advertising agencies to avoid any business with tobacco companies, and companies with past tobacco industry associations will pay a price. This new climate will be difficult for many in the advertising industry to accept, especially considering how much the cigarette and advertising industries helped define each other over this century. Some of the best talent in the history of advertising worked on cigarette accounts, and many of them smoked cigarettes, too. However, in those days good statistics were hard to find, about consumer behavior or about the effects of long term tobacco use. The current statistics showing cigarettes kill about 500,000 Americans every year can't be ignored by the advertising industry, and they won't be ignored by the public.

The tobacco scandal marks the beginning of the trend for consumers to get hard, detailed, information about major social issues from private Websites, rather than from advertiser sponsored news media. Commercial news media will never fully recover from this, and perhaps just as well. Like the consumer exodus to cable channels from the major networks, the trend will be subtle at first, and dismissed by conventional media, but it will progress rapidly and inevitably. By the next presidential election private Websites should be having a significant effect on the public's awareness of a number of major social issues. Ultimately, no issue will be over until it's over on the Internet, regardless of what politicians and media say.

There are lessons to be learned here, and damage control to be planned. The tobacco scandal is just a warm-up for the problems the chemical industry will face in the next few decades, and that scandal will generate even more negative fallout for the advertising industry. Most importantly, consumers are learning to use the Internet to effectively counter the most elaborately financed public relations campaigns, even those involving issues of great complexity. Advertisers and their agencies need to consider this new reality, carefully. Consumerism isn't a David and Goliath issue anymore. On the Internet everyone can afford to be a Goliath.

Copyright 1994 - 2010 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

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