So how are tobacco firms going to advertise e-cigarettes?

A sexy comeback?

It looks like doubles all round: ad agency execs are no doubt rubbing their hands in glee. Christmas may come early this year for some ad execs. Tobacco advertising is making an unexpected comeback. Not a misprint – ciggy firms are already plugging their wares on US television. It really is like going back in time.

This is all to do with e-cigarettes. And this may just be the start. These little electronic gadgets contain a battery and a replaceable cartridge that turn nicotine and other chemicals into vapour inhaled by the user. 

Lorillard, the third-largest US tobacco company and owner of the Newport brand, snapped up Blu e-cigs last year for over $100m. Since October, it has been running TV ads starring actor Steven Dorff: sales are booming. Cue Lorillard’s rivals getting in on the act. Altria – parent company of Philip Morris and owner of the Marlbro brand – is launching its first e-cig.

RJ Reynolds (Camel and Winston are among its killer brands) is to ramp up its e-cig activity via its Vuse product. Reynolds is readying a TV ad campaign to roll out promoting Vuse as early as August. Meantime, British American Tobacco (BAT) - Benson & Hedges, Dunhill and John Player count among its brands - will promote an e-cig branded Vype.

At each firm, there is one common and hugely predictable theme: multi-million pound or dollar marketing budgets. And this is where things may become interesting. Just how will ad creatives promote the latest incarnation of the supposedly safe cigarette?

Then there is the matter of brand ambassadors? In the past, actors such as Ronald Reagan, Bob Hope and Rock Hudson plugged Chesterfield cigarettes; Phil (Sgt Bilko) Silvers was the face of Camel.

In the UK, I recall class ads from early schooldays for Manikin cigars featuring Bond Girl actress and model Caroline Munro. Sheer enjoyment from Manikin, I think ran the tagline. Sheer lechery more like.

Other memorable tobacco ads included Ronnie Corbett and Gregor Fisher: they were at least given some decent scripts (to the accompaniment of Bach’s Air on the G String) to plug Hamlet cigars.

The wonderful George Cole, in his pre-Minder days, was also on a "nice little earner" plugging Benson & Hedges.

Among contemporary actors and celebs who continue to smoke real cigs, who might agencies turn to? Rhianna? Britney? Eva Mendes? Or how about Simon Cowell, regularly snapped with cig in hand?

Agents for other celeb smokers such as Kerry Katona or Jeremy Clarkson may not be in heavy demand but who knows. Courtney Love has been the front-woman in ads for the Njoy brand of e-cigs.

Other possibles might include Kate Moss or better still: Cheryl Cole. I have a vague notion that she has snapped with cig in hand not so long ago. On a more serious point: can tobacco firms – given the mendacious nature of much of its past advertising – be trusted to advertise e-cigs responsibly?

For that matter, concerns remain about certain aspects of these firms recent marketing activity in emerging markets such as China and Indonesia. All of this marketing and M&A activity is gathering steam ahead of any definitive evidence about e-cigarette safety. Research to date – such as there has been - suggests that the vapour emitted by e-cigs is not harmful. It consists largely of water and there seem to be no issues about passive e-cig smoking.

The UK government is still to determine if e-cigs are to be licensed and regulated as an aid to quit smoking. Medical experts have been stepping up their lobbying of government to classify e-cigs as a form of nicotine-replacement therapy. That would mean that the products would be subject to strict checks.

Not so long ago the tobacco industry lobbied and argued and spun ad nauseam that increased regulation and ad restrictions would spell the death knell for the entire industry. They got that wrong; totally, utterly wrong in fact. Tobacco firms have very low amounts of debt and in recent years have offered their shareholders inflation protection and strong dividends. Given their track record of business forecasts, it might be prudent to take with a pinch of salt all that the tobacco sector says about the business prospects for e-cigs.

We may at least see some decent ads though.

Photograph: Getty Images

Douglas Blakey is the editor of Retail Banker International

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war