The New Face of Tobacco

Noy Thrupkaew


the Marlboro Man surveys the great Eastern frontier from posters, walls, and

cigarette stands all over Vietnam, young “Marlboro cowgirls” offer free

cigarettes to pedestrians and beckon young people into company-sponsored events

such as “Hollywood Nite.”


Japan, ad copy for Virginia Slims cigarettes‹the most popular women’s brand

in the world‹reads, “I’m going the right way‹keeping the rule of the

society, but at the same time I am honest with my own feeling. So I don’t care

if I behave against the so-called `rules’ as long as I really want to.” In

the background, a slim woman with indeterminate facial features‹the glamorous,

possibly Asian, possibly Caucasian kind of face that dominates the media in many

Asian countries‹embraces a fair-haired man. The tag line for this campaign?

“Be You.”


in the United States, Philip Morris donates money to domestic violence shelters

in communities of color; and sponsors minority women’s groups such as the

Mexican American National Women’s Association. And in their most recent move

to target U.S. women of color, Philip Morris launched a $40 million

“multicultural” ad campaign for their Virginia Slims cigarettes in December

1999 that featured Asian, African, Latina, and white models under the slogan,

“Find Your Voice.”


behind these campaigns? According to tobacco-control activists, recent slow

profits and damaging lawsuits against big tobacco in the United States have

resulted in an onslaught of marketing dollars directed at these two untapped

markets: women overseas, particularly women living in developing nations and

minority women in the United States.


transnational tobacco corporations such as Philip Morris, which owns both

Marlboro and Virginia Slims, suffered several highly publicized setbacks within

the past two years, including the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement (MSA). The

settlement banned outdoor advertising and the use of cartoons in advertising

cigarettes, and prohibits the targeting of youth‹a major tobacco market‹in

promotions, advertising, or marketing. As a result, the overseas market has

become even more appealing to the tobacco industry. “As the United States has

been clamping down on [the tobacco industry], the money they put abroad has been

increasing exponentially,” said Joon-Ho Yu, program coordinator for the

California-based Asian and Pacific Islander American Health Forum (APIAHF), one

of four groups in the California Joint Ethnic Tobacco Education Networks.


tobacco companies have seen huge results from their overseas campaigns, which

more than compensate for slower profit increases in the United States. In

contrast to declining smoking rates in industrialized countries, smoking in

developing nations has skyrocketed in the past twenty years. Philip Morris, the

world’s largest cigarette company, raked in huge profits from its

international marketing‹overseas profits soared 256 percent in the last ten

years, while profits in the United States increased only 16 percent.


by statistics on rising rates of smoking in developing nations, public health

officials and tobacco activists in 1996 began to formulate an international

treaty on tobacco control that would set legally binding global standards on

tobacco-control issues, including advertising, taxation, and education and

prevention. Since that time, the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework

Convention for Tobacco Control (FCTC) has gained momentum‹if ratified by all

191 member nations, the convention could put a serious dent in transnational

tobacco’s grip on markets overseas. As for tobacco’s strategies in this

country, the “Find Your Voice” campaign is just the latest sign that in the

United States, the “next great frontier” for the tobacco industry is women

of color, according to Alvina Bey Bennett, the chair of Virginia’s National

Coalition FOR Women AGAINST Tobacco.


to Gregory Connolly, director of the Massachusetts Tobacco Control Program,

“Since the Master Settlement Agreement, there has been a very sharp increase

of cigarette advertising directed toward ethnic females. There’s been a change

and shift in the types of models in the ads‹Virginia Slims went from using

whites to a `rainbow’ strategy [in the “Find Your Voice” ads] as a way to

pay the bill.”


the United States, work on the development of “Find Your Voice”

counter-campaigns has galvanized women’s tobacco-control groups. The National

Coalition FOR Women AGAINST Tobacco launched their “Loud and Clear” campaign

in response to the “Find Your Voice” ads, creating educational counter-ads

and action kits for women’s and girls’ organizations across the country. The

Women’s Tobacco Control Coalition awarded over $40,000 in grants to Los

Angeles community organizations to curb smoking among young women and girls of



many U.S. tobacco-control activists, the increased domestic marketing directed

at minority women is inextricably linked to the targeting of women overseas.

According to Bennett, “Everybody wants to mimic American life, it’s a good

life. If inequalities dominate your day-to-day life, escaping with a cigarette

is very appealing. The same applies to minority women. Despite the wonderful

standard of living in this country, there are pockets of poverty and lower

levels of education, and ethnic groups are prey to the selling of the myth of

freedom and glamour and wealth through cigarettes.” In addition, armed with

the knowledge that “when [U.S. anti-tobacco activists] make a dent here,

[tobacco responds by] becoming rampant globally,” according to Yu, women

tobacco activists in the United States are focusing their energies on both

domestic and international campaigns. “After all,” said Bonnie Kantor, the

network manager of the U.S.-based International Network of Women Against

Tobacco, “if [the tobacco industry] can’t do it here, we have to make sure

they can’t do it over there.”


Empire Expands


tobacco industry has already gained a strong foothold in the male market. The

majority of men in China, the United States, Japan, Russia, and Indonesia – the

top five cigarette markets worldwide in 1996 – called themselves smokers.


in these countries, however, have a much lower level of smoking. In Vietnam, the

country with the highest smoking prevalence in the world, 74 percent of men

smoke, compared to a mere 4 percent of Vietnamese women. These low numbers among

women, according to tobacco-control activists, could mean big dollars to

U.S.-based transnational corporations. Patti Lynn, the associate campaign

director of the corporate accountability organization INFACT noted, “In

developing countries, the women have often traditionally not smoked and

represent an incredibly lucrative expansion market for U.S.-based transnational



a result, “transnational tobacco companies have shifted their focus to

developing nations with aggressive marketing campaigns targeting women and

girls,” according to a WHO report. The development of “women’s brands”

featuring “light” or “slim” cigarettes, the barrage of goods such as

hats, lighters, skirts, and purses covered with tobacco logos, the sponsorship

of disco dances and beauty pageants, and the use of women as “cigarette

girls” to give away free samples are some of the tactics used by tobacco

companies to entice women to smoke.


of the attention is focused on Asia, with its enormous potential markets of

China and Southeast Asia and just-developing free-market systems, where the

enforcement of trade regulations is not always consistent. This laxity produces

what Soon-Young Yoon, New York liaison between WHO and the Campaign for

Tobacco-Free Kids, called a marketing “free for all” that results in rising

rates of smoking. WHO predicted that sales in Asia would increase by 35 percent

by 2000, and tobacco companies are spending advertising dollars to ensure that

Asian women will be part of the next wave of smokers.


of the print ads for tobacco in Asia feature Western women who espouse ideals of

empowerment, individuality, and rebellion.


largest advertising agency, Dentsu, asserts that white models lend a “sense of

foreignness to Japanese products, serving as symbols of prestige, quality, and

modernity…. In the globalized context of consumer culture, a Western woman and

her choice of cigarettes project a powerful symbol,” according to a WHO report

entitled “The Culture of the Body.”


response to international marketing strategies, feminist activists working on

the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control have pushed for bans on advertising

and the printing of tobacco logos on high-products, in addition to urging the

tobacco-control movement to become more inclusive of women. Soon-Young Yoon

explained, “We are not just victims of advertising, but need to be seen as

leaders in the tobacco control movement.”


of Color in the United States: Tools and Targets of Global Tobacco? That idea

rings true to tobacco activists in the United States who are working to empower

women in their own communities, especially as U.S. tobacco activists have

started to recognize the repercussions of gains made in the United States on the

developing world. “Tobacco control is like a water balloon,” said Kantor,

“you push it down here and it bulges out there.”


of this permeability between communities in the United States and those abroad

has shed new light on the importance of minority women to the tobacco industry,

according to some tobacco activists. “The women in other countries tend to

look up to American women as being more successful and leading more exciting

lives. And anyone who can fly back to their homeland, or their parents’

homeland‹such a person would be looked up to,” explained John Banzhaf of

ASH. “In a sense, that woman who returns becomes a walking advertisement, a

billboard for not just smoking but for a specific product.”


the transnational nature of growing segments of the U.S. population,

tobacco-control activists became alarmed when the Virginia Slims “Find Your

Voice” ads first appeared in a September 1999 Advertising Age article on the

new campaign. The ads, which have several different permutations, often feature

women in traditional clothing, and have copy in languages such as Swahili and

Spanish. Officially released in November 1999, the ads appeared in magazines

such as Glamour, Ladies’ Home Journal, People, Essence, Vibe, Black Elegance,

and Latina.


ads “signaled to me that the industry was going to use a more far-reaching

approach in their recruitment of women here and abroad,” said National

Coalition FOR Women AGAINST Tobacco Chair Bennett. Filled with exotic images of

“foreign-ness” – different languages, kente cloth, an African woman in a

headwrap, an Asian woman with heavy face paint and silk robes, and stereotypical

messages (for the Asian woman, “In silence I see, with wisdom I speak”) –

the ads present the flip side of most of the advertising in Asia, which peddles

an equally exotic Westernization. With the “Find Your Voice” ads, Virginia

Slims manages to sell a message of seeming tolerance (for international women of

color in stereotypical roles) to a white audience, and acceptance for the ethnic

heritage of minority women (as long as they adopt the Western method of

“finding their voice” by lighting up).


the “Find Your Voice” ads can exert a powerful pull, according to Bennett.

“They are telling women 1you can become acculturated, but can maintain that

part of your heritage. And it’s working. It’s not okay for Asian American

women to smoke, but in this ad, they’re telling you that you can retain

`traditional’ elements of your heritage even though you smoke. For African

American women who are searching for that identity and link with their heritage,

the message `No single institution owns the copyright to beauty’ next to a

beautiful African woman – that’s powerful.” The same could be said about

women abroad, who are continually bombarded with images of “Western”

lifestyles, attitudes, and bodies that are too often contrasted against and

privileged above their own. So for U.S. women of color and women abroad,

what’s the way to solve any tension between an ethnic heritage and

“Americanization,” between being a non-Western woman and desiring goods and

attitudes the tobacco industry has forcibly equated with Westernization? Just

smoke a cigarette.


Leave a comment