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A Case Analysis of a Public Tobacco Campaign

by Suleman

J.R. Reynolds (RJR) is one of the cigarette firms working against the Government’s continuing prohibition of tobacco. One effective strategy employed by RJR was to place public informational advertisements in major national newspapers and magazines.  It is essential to study the general texts produced by RJR as they reveal a complex and evolving public campaign to influence public health policy. The following is an analysis of the constraints facing the tobacco industry, ways it confronts these impediments, theoretical perspectives apply to evaluate their effectiveness, and draw some lessons for the practice of organizational communication.

Richard Joshua Reynolds of Winston, North Carolina, founded RJR in 1875

Some general facts and goals at RJR are described in their mission statement.  Reynolds Tobacco Company (RJRT) is the second-largest cigarette manufacturer in the United States, with four of the nation’s ten best selling brands … W e will continually strive to meet the preference of adults…[w]e conduct our business responsibly and ethically, recognize the risks associated with cigarette use, and commit to being a constructive participant in various public policy issues involving smoking. (RJRT.com)Thus, RJR focuses its attention on product development and market expansion while simultaneously acknowledging their cooperation in the public health issues surrounding smoking.  The following section analyzes the informational advertisements placed by RJR between 1993 and 1998 to show how the affective elements in the publications changed overtime to combat obstacles they faced and acknowledge the organizational culture.

A Case Analysis of a Public Tobacco Campaign

From 1993 to 1995, RJR places many information advertisements in newspapers such as USA Today and The New York Times to oppose government regulation of tobacco.  This began when William Jefferson Clinton was elected President and directed the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to investigate regulating tobacco.  RJR immediately began paying for advertisements that claimed government regulation of smoking would lead to higher crime, cost taxpayers billions of dollars to enforce rules, and impinge upon individuals’ fundamental civil rights.  These appeals are entirely consistent with the problematic rhetorical position occupied by RJR in the face of rising public and political pressure for regulation.

The First Challenge or Obstacle Faced by RJR was the Question of their Public Reputation-or Lack of it

Cigarettes are known to cause cancer, and efforts to forestall regulation will only increase the mortality and morbidity of consumers.  RJR, in this sense, is NOT a good corporate citizen and lacked a first name to present themselves credibility in public.  RJR faced mounting public outrage and pressure for change as well as a credibility crisis.  The continued attacks on their name and reputation further meant that the company needed to mount a vigorous defence.  Thus, facing a potential sea-change in their business environment, RJR had to work hard.  Finally, RJR met the barrier of apathy or ignorance.  Too much of the public, regulation of RJR, and the tobacco industry was not only a good idea, but they likely could not see any immediate impact on their lives – mainly if they were non-smokers.  In short, RJR faced several hurdles to the valid receipt of their message.  The following section will outline how RJR confronted these barriers.

One clear realistic argument used by RJR to raise public awareness of the regulatory problem was based on Canada’s history of rising tobacco taxes and experienced a growth in crime.  The commercial noted Canada was scaling back its cigarette taxes. It passed two years before the massive upsurge in smuggling and organized crime.  The criminal activities created a national environment of terror and abuse (RJR, 143).  This example was used to allude to what might happen in the United States if the Federal Government were to regulate tobacco.  In another advertisement, RJR says that the government is already costing taxpayers more than 500 billion dollars a year by employing 125,000 workers to oversee 5,000 different regulations (Reynolds, 155).  RJR suggests that a smoking war will only create additional federal bureaucracy to regulate tobacco, and that the government should focus on more urgent social issues (Reynolds, 159).  A third appeal, and probably the most effective, was to point out that the government violated fundamental individual rights to choose.  Results from a poll taken in 1993 confirmed that 9 out of 10 Americans believe that adults should have the right to decide for themselves whether or not to smoke (Reynolds, 155).  RJR also provided testimonials from smokers and non-smokers, in addition to this poll.

One non-smoker said, “Informing the Government’s stance.  They will actually give me the details and allow me the right to make my own choices “(Reynolds, 145).  Testimonials from non-smokers on the violation of their constitutional rights to choose or at least have a say in the issue are more useful to the general public than those of smokers.  The apparently disinterested, impartial comments that translate into a large coalition of interests tend to support preserving the status quo and keeping tobacco control quite loose.

The comparison ads listed above were the main target of RJR ‘s persuasive strategies against government regulation beginning in 1993.  While their campaign progressed, however, RJR based its emphasis on children’s education, the risks of smoking and the need to have conversations with parents and teachers avoid the pitfalls of peer pressure.

One advertisement states that the government should not be responsible for teaching children lifestyle decisions and values but that educating children about the risks of tobacco and avoiding peer pressure parents or teachers should be left (Reynolds, n. 157).

RJR claims that that federal regulation does not eliminate underage smoking, but states need to implement the laws on books intended to discourage children from getting into cigarettes.  This latter approach of following the law established that RJR believes she would be the most effective at curbing smoking (Reynolds, 156).

The complex and multifaceted arguments marshaled by RJR in their public advertisements can be better understood through the framework of Systems Theory.  According to Miller (2003), a systems approach to organizational communication looks at how we study organizations (p. 71).  The organic or evolutionary nature of the arguments made by RJR in their multi-year advertising campaign exemplifies the dynamism within organizational life discovered by organizational theorists.  Two key ideas of systems theory, permeability, and interdependence are shot through RJR’s adverting.  Permeability argues that successful systems are not closed but instead are open to new inputs from outside. Reliance claims that systems rely on open one another for support.  RJR exemplifies these ideas when creating an advertisement that incorporates the opinion of the general public and addresses the violation of individuals’ rights.  This advertisement says that it violates an adults’ right to choose when regulation is enforced, cutting off access to cigarettes (Reynolds, 155).  This particular advertisement incorporates elements that both play upon their fears, as well as showing how a free society and the majority of the population can effectively agree on public policy.

Later, RJR makes the point more lucid when they point to higher taxes, higher crime, and fewer jobs if tobacco is regulated (Reynolds, 143).   The government’s need for tax revenue and their role to protect – rather than erode – personal freedoms are central to their strategy.  Moreover, given that the entire nation pays taxes – not only smokers – RJR shows the interdependence of smokers and non-smokers.

RJR used their referent power to build public support for their position through the use of testimonials by smokers and non-smokers alike.  Referent power is expressed when an individual is influenced or attracted to a group they can identify with and desire to forge a relationship with that group (French and Rave, 150).   In several advertisements, they point out that there are over 45 million smokers in the United States.  Noting such a large number could deter a person from forming opinions against or making decisions that could affect so many people’s lives.  Archie Anderson, a smoker from Minnesota, is fed up with government intervention and speaks out on it.  Anderson states, “I choose to smoke. It’s my decision.  As an adult in a free country, it’s my right.  That doesn’t mean I believe I have the right to blow smoke in your face.  I think smoking and no-smoking sections in restaurants and public palces are a good way of keeping everybody happy” (Reynolds, 151).  By this statement, Anderson appealed to smokers and non-smokers, and most all the right we are afforded by citizens in a free would.

RJR used Anderson’s – and by proxy, their – referent power to support their claim that government intervention on smoking is an abrogation of individual rights.

Public informational advertisements are popular ways to get messages to the general public. The tactics RJR used in the ads were beneficial for several reasons.

The testimonials of smokers and non-smokers were the most effective as you can see arguments favoring both sides of the regulation debate.  However, RJR effectively co-opts the interests of the non-smokers and makes their position look more appealing by its broad acceptance and support of any number of benefits and individuals.  As the advertisements effectively link a free and open society to smoking, RJR cleverly makes smoking a right that all Americans can and should stand behind.

Second, by making the government appear less rational and more threatening, RJR seems more compassionate and their position sensible.  The overt risks to liberty and ways in which monies are wasted on regulation and law enforcement make the government seem both ineffectual and impotent.  This is depicted in their advertisement on page 157 of the bloated and toothless bureaucrat.  RJR can effectively allay ignorance or apathy about their position by making their interests appear broader and less partisan.  The hostility they confront given their apparent lack of credibility is transformed into resentment and distrust of government.  Finally, RJR presents a general public consensus against regulation and further restriction of tobacco to show at least a stalemate in the political movement for change.  This at least appears to shift the grounds of the debate from support for regulation to support against it.  This is further reinforced by their discussion of Canada’s failure to show the negative consequences of the law.  The impact of crime and higher taxes are also something that broadens the appeal of RJR’s position.

Although you may not agree with or even like smoking, RJR’s purpose was to point out that cigarette smoking is a personal choice, and individuals should have the right to decide, not the government.  Though RJR recognizes their public commitment to combat the adverse effects of smoking in its mission statement, they engage in a creative redefinition of the issues to ultimately protect their interests.  In terms of the implications for organizational communication, there are two primary directions.  First, organizations need to create public messages consistent with their expressed beliefs and values.  Following organizational culture models, active organizations are mostly those who present a coherent and unified appearance.  RJR accomplishes this by appearing to both represent the interests of smokers to ensure access to cigarettes and be looking out for public health.  This tension is echoed in the mission statement, and repeated strategies in the advertisements focusing on halting further regulations and ensuring children don’t have access to cigarettes.  Second, building from the Classical Approach to organizational communication and discussion of the Change Processes within organizations, RJR can create a clear and compelling message from management about the implications of regulation and be pro-active in presenting their case to the public before they are overtaken by control.  RJR is able, through a series of advertisements, to both diffuse criticism of their practice and simultaneously build support for their agenda. That is no small thing, and was crucial in finally resolving the tobacco control dispute.

  • French, John R.P. and Bertram Raven. (1959).
  • “Bases of Social Power.” Studies in Social Power. Ed. Dorwin Cartwright.  University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
  • Inside RJRT: Mission. (n.d.). Retrieved March 1, 2003, from http://www.rjrt.com/IN/COHowWeThink_Mission.asp
  • Miller, Katherine.  (2003). Organizational Communication: Approaches and Processes, 3rd Ed.  Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing.
  • R.J. Reynolds. A smoke-free society may not live up to expectations. COM250:  Introduction to Organizational Communication Course Packet, page 143.
  • R.J. Reynolds.
  • The smell of cigarette smoke annoys me, but not nearly as much as the government telling me what to do.
  • COM250: Introduction to Organizational Communication Course Packet, page 145.
  • R.J. Reynolds. “I’m one of America’s 45 million smokers.  I am not a moaner or a whiner.  But I’m getting fed up.  I’d like the government off my back.” COM250:  Introduction to Organizational Communication Course Packet, page 151.
  • R.J. Reynolds. Everywhere we go, Americans are telling us they want the government off their backs. COM250:
  • Introduction to Organizational Communication Course Packet, page 155.

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