Stubbbed Out: The Genius Of Cigarette Pack Design

With the government mulling over whether to force tobacco companies to use plain, brand-free cigarette packaging, could this be the end of a design era for fag packets?
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The opening sequence from the pilot of HBO's wildly addictive Mad Men series sees Donald Draper - Madison Avenue advertising executive, anti-hero and 3-pack-a-day übermensch – spark up a conversation with a waiter concerning the brand of cigarettes he smokes, the waiter is an Old Gold man, Draper, being a total cunt, presents a scenario whereby all the Old Gold disappears, would he change brand to his own, say Lucky Strike? “That's a sad story,” says the waiter, “It's a tragedy,” says Draper sarcastically.

Tobacco companies, no strangers to tragedy or sarcasm or wankers, may soon be facing a new front in their war with anti-smoking campaigners and in particular the cash-strapped, austerity peddling British government. The new proposals loosely outlined this week by Britain's Health Secretary Andrew Lansley will mean your beloved thin white friends will come packed in plain white boxes replete with the usual health warnings and non-branded details of the manufacturer. “We have to try new approaches and take decisions to benefit the population. The evidence is clear that packaging helps to recruit smokers, so it makes sense to consider having less attractive packaging, says Lansley. Most smokers wouldn’t care if their fags came packaged in Andrew Lansley’s hollowed-out skull as long as they get to suck in a lungful of toxic blue magic. I on the other hand do.

Tobacco has long been banished from mainstream advertising in Britain, the last time a cigarette brand graced the pages of a national magazine or newspaper in the UK Margaret Thatcher was prime minister and everyone thought icebergs caused AIDS. So cryptic were the ads, Silk Cut's in particular, that you'd be hard pushed to know what was being sold. Silk, in Sik Cut’s case. Rigid government guidelines meant that Marlboro Man, and anyone else for that matter, could not be shown smoking.

Most smokers wouldn’t care if their fags came packaged in Andrew Lansley’s hollowed-out skull as long as they get to suck in a lungful of toxic blue magic.

The campaigning group Action on Smoking and Health (Ash) are backing the proposal and have long maintained that 'glitzy' packaging is a key contributor to attracting new smokers. Hardly breaking news since glitzy packaging account for around a billion per cent of everything we buy from eggs to iPods, what stands cigarette branding out from the crowd is its wholesale reliance on packaging coupled with its denial of conventional marketing strategies. Mad Men's Don Draper knows this more than anyone else as legendary American cigarette brand Lucky Strike is his fictitious agency's number one client. The true story of Lucky Strike's impact on advertising is far more compelling than anything dreamt up by SterlingCooper's pissed-up copywriters.

American Tobacco first launched Lucky Strike in 1917 and its packaging was a masterclass in simplicity, the green pack, the red disk the sans serif typeface, the soft paper pack became an instant American icon, immortalized by every Hollywood rebel and every US Marine, a pack of Luckies fitted the zeitgeist be it tucked in the sleeve of a cap-sleeve T-shirt or the chinstrap of a Vietnam-bound GI.

In 1940, the brand came to the attention of the legendary industrial designer Raymond Loewy, the man responsible for Coca-Cola's Mae West inspired bottle and numerous other American institutions including the Studebaker car the Greyhound bus and the Shell logo. The president of American Tobacco George Washington Hill bet Loewy $50,000 he would not be able to improve on the Lucky Strike design. One month later Loewy collected his money and Lucky Strike had a new package.

The wily designer realised that the original pack only had its logo on one side meaning when the pack was put down there was a 50 percent chance the brand would be obscured, by placing it on both sides he immediately guaranteed the brand would be visible to twice as many people. The original green was replaced with a luminous white, amplifying the simple design and it's homely 'It's Toasted' message. Loewy's design was quickly imitated, most strikingly by the French brand Gauloises Disque Bleu, the blue circle and viking helmet immediately recognisable to art students and wannabe beat poets across the world.

I recently encountered an image on a pack of cigarettes that looked like a tramp had put a shotgun barrel up his arse and let off a couple of celebratory rounds.

Before flip-top or crush-proof packs came along most people would decant their cigarettes into ornate cases, the pack itself was redundant and there was little kudos in the little paper boxes they came in if you could flip open a gold Cartier case.

As pack quality improved so did its design, think Camel, Gitanes, Winston, Marlboro, John Player Special, Silk Cut, Peter Stuyvesant, Dunhill, Chesterfield, Salem, Benson & Hedges, all evocative brands. Telling tobacco companies they cannot use their brands is like telling Nike they can no longer use its Swoosh or Apple's apple.

Today's hard-pack Luckies lack the rock & roll soul of their early incarnation and most of Britain's supermarket brands are bargain basement products aimed at the poor where inventive graphic design plays second fiddle to price, quantity and a lung-busting nicotine hit.

While health warnings have long been associated with tobacco advertising, although only recently in the UAE, it's difficult to imagine what the likes of Raymond Loewy would have thought of today's ubiquitous messages that have now gravitated to gratuitous imagery rather than the avuncular message from the Surgeon General.

I recently encountered an image on a pack of cigarettes that looked like a tramp had put a shotgun barrel up his arse and let off a couple of celebratory rounds, it was so utterly horrific that I immediately felt the need to light up, a paradox I'm still unravelling. Continue smoking, screamed another ghastly image and you’ll look like this! A vision I have filed under ‘Vivienne Westwood by Ray Harryhausen’ What in sweet sugary hell these people where doing with their fags is anybody’s guess, but it clearly didn’t work out.

It comes as no surprise then, that by series-four of Mad Men, Don Draper takes out a full page of The New York Times declaring that his agency can no longer support an industry that kills its own customers.

Scare tactics have clearly failed, a fact neatly illustrated by smokers the world over and the curious, albeit brief success of Death (brand) cigarettes in the 1990s. Clearly there is no glamour in death, especially a slow one, and big tobacco has made it its business to package it's product with as much verve and tenacity as you can when your product is, ultimately, something you set on fire and is likely to kill you.

Instantly recognisable brands usually disappear and die when the corporation or product they exist to promote become obsolete or collapse, think PanAm, British Rail, TWA, Faberge, Atari. Dismantling your brand when your product is flying off the shelves is unprecedented and presents what optimists like to refer to as an opportunity. It could be big tobacco will be forced to reinterpret the whole perception of advertising and marketing, they certainly have the money and motivation, outside of a worldwide ban on the production and sale of tobacco what else is going to stop them, certainly not Don Draper.

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