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

A sexy comeback?

New Statesman
Photograph: Getty Images

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.