How to Lose Sales…on Purpose: A Lesson From the Canadian Tobacco Industry

On a recent trip to Canada, I had the privilege of exploring Niagara Falls, Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal. It’s always exciting to explore a new place and, that being said, I expected some cultural differences. Prior to my trip, I knew Canada had a different healthcare system than that of the U.S., but I quickly learned that the health differences didn’t end there.

While in Toronto, my brother pointed out an empty cigarette carton on the ground – completely taboo from anything I’d ever seen before. On it was a photo of an older woman hooked up to an oxygen tank, with a short story about how smoking gave her emphysema and led to her lungs collapsing four times. The picture took up so much of the box that the brand of cigarettes was the very last thing I noticed. If you work in communications or public relations, this would typically be a nightmare, but I couldn’t help but admire the angle Canada is taking to send a message and how it may be benefiting their overall health goals.

Upon further digging, I found that Canada is not alone in this movement. According to the World Health Organization, “only 42 countries, representing 19% of the world’s population, meet the best practice for pictorial warnings, which includes the warnings in the local language and cover an average of at least half of the front and back of cigarette packs.”

The big question: is it working? The answer is debatable. While there is research showing that tobacco use in Canada appears to be in decline, roughly five million of Canada’s 36 million residents are still using tobacco products. In an attempt to take it one step further, Canada is currently coming to the end of a three month long consultation period debating the implementation of “plain packaging,” which would completely remove all branding and use of logos.

Credit: The Guardian

Considering that approximately 40 million people in the U.S. in 2014 were smokers, it may be worth questioning whether a blatant photo of a diseased lung or a story of a cancer patient is more effective than the easy-to-ignore U.S. surgeon general warning in fine print.

But what exactly does it take to effectively communicate a health message? Is it shock value, such as images of diseased organs; an emotional, personal story of a terminally ill patient; or the logical warning on the label that tells you, rather than shows you? Which will people pay attention to and which will they ignore? Are all of these elements important to create real impact? For Canada and several other countries, pushing the boundaries of packaging and branding (or lack thereof) although somewhat controversial, has been seemingly effective in communicating an important cause.

What are your thoughts on this? Does this method take it too far, or do you believe it’ll always successfully help make a point?

Credit: Smoke-free Canada
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