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Antismoking Forces Are Not Amused by Tobacco Company's Jingle


In a bizarre recording that simultaneously pokes fun at itself and, apparently, at the campaign to keep children from smoking, Brown & Williamson Tobacco has been serenading callers for several months with what may be the worst jingle in commercial history.

The recording, at (800) 578-7453, begins: "If you've reached this number in error, you're in luck because we're about to serenade you. If you've dialed correctly, you're in luck because we're about to serenade you." The male chorus that follows sounds like a cross between an Irish Spring commercial and Monty Python's Lumberjack Song:

Oooh, the tobacco plant is a lovely plant, Its leaves so broad and green. But you shouldn't think about the tobacco plant If you're still a teen. Cause tobacco is a big person's plant and that's the way it should be. So, if you're under 21 go and climb a tree. Oh, the tobacco plant is a lovely plant And that my friends is no yarn! We let it ripen in the field Then hang it in a barn.

As the chorus hums, the announcer concludes that the song really wasn't very good, adding: "Write a better song about the tobacco plant, and we'll use it. Now press 1 to find select stores in your area. Or press 2 for any other company information."

The message is part of a humor offensive that Brown & Williamson in Louisville, Ky., part of British American Tobacco, began last year as the tobacco industry was agreeing to curtail much of its overt advertising to children. It has gained widespread attention as computer users sent each other e-mail messages that advised calling the number to listen to the recordings; many of the e-mail writers expressed surprise that the message was not a put-on or parody and was actually sponsored by Brown & Williamson.

The message replaced one that callers heard last fall, the first time that the company had used a telephone recording as a promotional device. That initial message said: "Brown & Williamson Tobacco is in love. We're a giant corporation, and you make us feel like a little kitten. Thank you, lover. By the way, the other tobacco companies hate you and think you are ugly. They told us so."

Mark Smith, the chief spokesman for Brown & Williamson, said the messages were not promotions, not advertisements (they mention no products) and not directed at children. "It's designed to put a smile on people's faces when they call our "800" numbers," he said. The numbers appear only on the backs of the company's cigarette packs and are intended for adult smokers, particularly those wanting to know where the brand is sold, he said. Callers requesting more information are asked to verify they are 21, and people who hesitate are cut off, Mr. Smith said. Callers who complete a registration form can obtain discount coupons and merchandise.

The number for the jingle was printed by the company only on the backs of packs of Lucky Strike Filters, but produced a huge number of extra calls, he said -- no doubt because of all the e-mail messages circulating about the recording. The jingle is to be replaced in several weeks, he said, and other humor messages will appear. Joke recordings will soon appear on the toll-free numbers printed on packs of Kools and GPC, the company's generic brand, he said.

"I think it shows that we don't take ourselves too seriously, that we're not too stuffy," Mr. Smith said. "I think it shows we're human beings." But was there a risk that the message would be perceived as mocking the antismoking effort? "No," he said, "because I think actions speak loudly, and I think we have an excellent record on youth smoking."

"One of the antismoking organizations tried to suggest that it was appealing to kids," he said. "It's not appealing to kids. My kids think it's kind of stupid. It's anything but cool."

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids agrees with Mr. Smith's last comment but little else.

"The so-called humorous jingle is part of a campaign that Brown & Williamson has been engaged in for the last year," said Matthew L. Myers, the organization's president. "By an attempt at humor, Brown & Williamson appears to be trying to do two things: make light of the gravity of the whole tobacco situation and make light of serious allegations of wrongdoing like those that appear in the movie 'The Insider' that devastated their reputation. It's an extraordinarily clever way to seek to undermine the gravity of the health concerns of tobacco and the public's low respect for them as a company."

John F. Banzhaf III, executive director of Action on Smoking and Health, a national antismoking organization, said of the jingle, "It seems directed at people who have a rather juvenile sense of humor, which means juveniles."

The tobacco industry has had a long history of humor in advertising, Mr. Banzhaf said, and that includes the not-so-subtle cracks at tobacco opponents in the "antismoking" ads financed in part by Philip Morris, ads that often portray antismoking advocates as intrusive busybodies while sending the appealing message that smoking is what adults do.

Mr. Banzhaf noted that the public doesn't accept humor in advertisements for blood pressure monitors or prescription drugs. "If you buy one computer over another because it looks like a cow, that's not a big deal," he said. "But if you decide whether or not to take an action which could significantly affect your health, you shouldn't be lulled, you shouldn't be distracted by humor."

 

MICHAEL POLLAK, April 26, 2000, The New York Times

Copyright © 2000 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.

 

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