In 2012, Australia banned branding on tobacco products. Every pack of cigarettes carries a health warning, and a horrific photograph of someone with lung cancer, or a mouthful of rotting teeth. The name of the brand appears in plain text, on a strip along the bottom.
A new study shows that this "plain packaging"—surprise—reduces the efficacy of branding. Participants in the study were 12% less likely to believe that some brands were less harmful than others, compared with regular tobacco packaging. Using lighter colors (pale blues and whites) for milder-flavored tobacco products, for example, led to the perception that they were less harmful.
"Colors, shapes, and symbols on packaging contribute to beliefs that certain brands are more high-status," says study co-author Dr. Raglan Maddox of St. Michael’s Hospital, "while using words like mild, light, or slim can give consumers the impression that some tobacco products are less harmful than others." By removing all these design elements, this misdirection is avoided.
The research targeted Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. These groups smoke much more than the Australian average—in 2013, 42% were smokers. After the change, participants under 35 were also 17% less likely to view some brands as more prestigious than others, whereas older folks had no change in their views.
This suggests that brand perceptions are formed early, when people first start smoking, and stick around for life. And interestingly, the study found no difference between smokers and non-smokers in terms of prestige perception.
This research may be of interest to Canada, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is considering plain packaging for tobacco. In the U.K. and Ireland, plain packaging will be introduced this year. And ironically, these changes seem to be percolating across the globe just as branding for newly-legalized marijuana products is taking off. Perhaps we’ll soon see Marlboro- and Camel-branded packs of joints.