Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Day 184: The Smart Smoke

For information on accessing documents, see note at the end of this post.

The man who directed marketing at RJR-Macdonald 35 years ago began his second day of testimony this morning at the Montreal tobacco trials.

As he had yesterday, Mr. Robin Robb answered the questions put to him by JTI-Macdonald's counsel with apparent sincerity and candour.

But more noticeable than yesterday was the fact that he sometimes had to be prompted to make the points that Mr. Pratte was seeking, and was always willing to do so. It's an unkind business, testifying. Give a well constructed answer too many times, and it sounds pre-fabricated.

(Besides - just how many times can you say that the marketing of the Vantage brand as a low-tar cigarette for concerned smokers was a mistake before drawing attention to the fact that Vantage was marketed as a low-tar cigarette to concerned smokers?)

Does that sound like a complaint? Well then, it is appropriately so, for this morning Mr. Pratte focused on how RJR-Macdonald responded to complaints about marketing during the 1978-1984 period when Mr. Robb was at the company. (Exhibit 40005L-1976)

Misleading advertising

There was the complaint from the federal department of Consumer and Corporate affairs regarding misleading advertising with respect to the term "Smoke Smart" in an advertisement for Vantage cigarettes. (Exhibit 40387). "If a decision is to be made between smoking and not smoking, there is nothing 'smart' or 'common-sense' about smoking," the government official pointed out.

The unapologetic reply prepared by the company (Exhibit 969A) made no concession that the words might be problematic. Nor did it mention that the company had entertained its own reservations about the phrase. The reason given to the government for the term being disappeared from their campaign was the natural rotation of advertising copy -- yet yesterday Mr. Robb had testified that he had initiated a review of the term that led to its being removed from advertising (Exhibit 40386).

Concerns about appeals to concerned smokers 

There was the complaint from Health Canada officials regarding the Vantage ads which were aimed at concerned smokers.The reply to this complaint was similarly unapologetic. (Exhibit 969E)  

Nonetheless, Mr. Robb explained today that as with "smart smoke" the company changed its promotional message -- away from a focus on the "concerned smoker" and towards a more aspirational reflection of the target market. (Exhibits 572D and 572F shown)

A slippery slope

There was the 1984 complaint from the Minister of Fitness and Amateur Sport to the Canadian Ski Association regarding its acceptance of a promotional sponsorship for Export A cigarettes. The reply suggested by RJR-Macdonald to the ski association was defiant in its defence of the sponsorship. (Exhibit 40389)

The sponsorship did not last long -- but Mr. Robb attributed the dissolution to the company's decision to withdraw. "Our involvement was met with a high degree of opposition in the media and from the anti-smoking groups. We laboured on through the first year and then we decided that we should withdraw from the sponsorship."

Beyond the school borders

There were complaints filed with the CTMC regarding billboards and store-front signs that had been placed by RJR-Macdonald within 200 metres of schools, in contravention of the voluntary code (Exhibit 480, 480A, 480B). The company decided to remove the billboards, but not the store-front signs. (Exhibit 40390)

Mr. Robb explained today that he had not considered that signs on stores were advertising in the traditional sense, and was waiting for the CTMC to act to clarify that they were not to be restricted. "I thought the best course of action was not to precipitate what might come out of the CTMC discussion." 

Sure enough, in 1985 the CTMC amended its regulations to clarify that it was okay to advertise on the front of stores that were within the 200 meter boundary (they concurrently added another form of outdoor advertising - pillar ads -to the list of those that could not appear near schools). (Exhibit 40005M.2, 40005M.3, 40005M.4, 40005N)

(When Mr. Lespérance asked why the company had not agreed to the request of Health Minister Monique Bégin to extend the school zone from 200 to 500 meters (Exhibit 1637, 1637A), Mr. Robb revealed a reluctance for strengthening that provision. "Some of those things have very big repercussions," Mr. Robb said. "Going from 200 meters to 500 meters .. might have meant wiping out billboards altogether. There were weighty matters that had to be discussed.")

The cross examination

The pace began to pick up slightly when Mr. André Lespérance began the cross-examination of Mr. Robb, as though this plaintiff's lawyer had a number of documents he wanted to get through in short order.

Among these were marketing presentations that Mr. Robb had made which referred to the use of cinema advertising to reach "younger adult males." (Exhibit 1634). Mr. Robb accidentally provoked some laughter when he explained that these ads were placed at drive-in theatres only, and that they were only shown during movies that were restricted to adult audiences.

Mr. Robb was insistent that when designing advertisements that were intended for 18-24 year olds, the company had "skewed more heavily towards the 24 year olds." This, he explained, was because they were concerned about alienating the majority of their smokers, who were over 30. When asked, he could not think of any evidence to prove that there was a heavier weighting given to the upper end of the age group, however.

He did not agree with Mr. Lespérance's suggestion that 12 to 17 year-olds would be as affected by imagery of "independence and masculinity" as those over 18.  He conceded that the company had not measured whether or not younger people liked their advertising.

"We're damned if we do and damned if we don't," he said.Monitoring youth views would have been unacceptable, and yet they were now facing criticism for not doing so. In this case, Mr. Lespérance pointed out, "common sense" would have to guide such decisions, and Mr. Robb agreed.

Mr. Robb did not, however, agree with Mr. Lespérance's suggestion of how common sense might apply to a "Taste for Adventure" advertisement the company ran while he was directing its marketing. (Exhibit 573C)

Unlike the lawyer, Mr. Robb was certain that this ad would be more attractive to 24 to 27 year olds than it would be to 15-17 year olds. He based this conclusion on his "experience as a marketer."

There were a few exchanged glances when Mr. Robb suggested that it was the physical difficulty of windsurfing that would discourage interest in this activity among teens. He had tried windsurfing and found it "'quite a difficult thing to do... It would be beyond the reach and the imagination of the 15 year old." 

Perhaps at his home in Chester, England there are no skate-boarders or other reminders of the relative physical prowess of teens at sports that require daring and balance.

Sporting sponsorships

Windsurfing was one of the sports identified by RJR Macdonald for promotional sponsorship. (Exhibit 712), and one for which the company gave detailed consideration to promotion. (Exhibit 1635, 1635A). Mr. Robb, however, thought that the documentary record reflected the "hot air" of contract public relations staff or the "wish list" of the event organizers more than any intention of the company to drum up widespread coverage of the event they were sponsoring.

Earlier in the day Mr. Robb had spoken about the sponsorhip of downhill skiing. He seemed unaware that their competor, Imperial Tobacco, had withdrawn from the sport a decade earlier out of a concern that it was a sport which attracted young people. (Exhibit 105-1970). He was similarly unaware that the Minister of Health, Marc Lalonde, had written the head of the CTMC in 1977 to request that the tobacco industry recognize "an inherent incompatibility between smoking and sports." (Exhibit 1558)

Even today, he does not agree with criticisms of associating cigarette brands with sports.  "I think it fell into the realm of free choice. One made one's own choice to smoke or not."  The only circumstances where he might see a problem was if it was suggested the cigarette would enhance the ability of those in the sport.

Mr. Lespérance asked whether televised sponsored events might be in conflict with Rule 1 and Rule 3 of the voluntary code.

Mr. Robb read through the copy of the Code and regulations in front of him for a several long seconds before answering that it was because the event organizers were in charge of publicizing the events that the code did not apply.

He took a defence that has not often been heard during this trial -- the other guys were doing it.  "That had been the practice of Rothmans and Imperial Tobacco - and it was done without challenge... We did not go further than anyone else and we thought it was in complete compliance with the rules." 

More concerns for the concerned smoker

Mr. Lespérance spent the last hour of the day dissecting the preparation for and execution of campaigns for Vantage cigarettes. He probed for the relationship between this low tar brand and any views of the marketers about responding to concerns about smoking and health.

Mr. Robb acknowledged that low tar cigarettes were sold as being less harmful "Vantage as a low tar cigarette was better than Export A which was a high tar cigarettes," and that this was the natural conclusion of the government press releases and pressure for reduced tar levels."We were doing what the government told us to do." 

Robin Robb will continue to testify tomorrow morning. In the afternoon, another JTI-Macdonald witness - Mr. Lance Newman. 

To access trial documents linked to this site:

The documents are on the web-site maintained by the Plaintiff's lawyers. To access them, it is necessary to gain entry to the web-site. Fortunately, this is easy to do.

Step 1: Click on: https://tobacco.asp.visard.ca

Step 2: Click on the blue bar on the splash-page "Acces direct a l'information/direct access to information" You will then be taken to the document data base.

Step 3: Return to this blog - and click on any links.