Published: 23 October 2013

The persuasive influence of the branded cigarette box

New research from the School of Psychology suggests that the marketing power of branded cigarette boxes is a good advertisement for compulsory plain packaging.

Tobacco use in the UK has been declining steadily, but approximately 100,000 people still die of a smoking-related illness every year.

Rules on tobacco marketing have become ever stricter, with bans on advertising, sponsorship and point-of-sale displays all contributing to the reduction in sales. But tobacco packaging (including boxes and pouches) is still heavily branded, despite the introduction of large health warnings and pictures of smoking-induced medical horrors.

Tobacco companies claim that branded packaging does not promote smoking, but research from the School of Psychology demonstrates a clear trend towards prominent depiction of cigarette boxes in tobacco advertising between 1950 and 2003, steadily replacing pictures of cigarettes and smokers. This trend began before the tightening of regulations on what tobacco advertisements could show, suggesting that tobacco companies have long known the marketing power of the branded cigarette box.

"Studies have found that smokers perceive their cigarettes as less satisfying and of lower quality when they are packaged in plain, unbranded boxes."

Prof. Jane Ogden

The research (published in the Journal of Health Psychology by Michaela Dewe, Professor Jane Ogden and Dr Adrian Coyle) explored changes in UK cigarette advertising since 1950 and the strategies used by tobacco companies to promote their products, with a focus on the use of the box and the meanings associated with smoking. From an archive of 1500 tobacco advertisements, the study randomly selected 40 UK print advertisements for each decade from the 1950s to the 2000s. The selected advertisements were then analysed for different aspects and trends in content and meaning.

The study suggests that tobacco companies gradually built an emphasis on branded packaging (instead of cigarettes themselves) to signify quality, and that this 'transfer of meaning' was complete before advertising was banned in 2003. This research builds on previous work in providing evidence that branded cigarette boxes act as portable advertising hoardings, circumventing the ban, with smokers who carry and display them acting as involuntary unpaid brand ambassadors.

Branded cigarette boxes act as portable advertising hoardings

In 2012 the UK government launched a consultation on the introduction of plain packaging, which met with a high level of public support. However, ministers are yet to make a decision on the issue. Australia has already made plain cigarette packaging compulsory.

Professor Ogden commented: “The results in our study were very revealing. The box cannot be considered a neutral object that has no impact on consumer choices. In fact the box is itself a form of branded packaging that is oriented towards persuading smokers to purchase cigarettes, which provides evidence in support of the call for compulsory plain packaging.”

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