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A Case Analysis Of A Public Tobacco Campaign

R.J. Reynolds (RJR) is one of many cigarette companies that is working toward the continued deregulation of tobacco by the government. One affective strategy employed by RJR was to place public informational advertisements in major national newspaper and magazines. It is important to study the public 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 this 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 Untied States, with four of the nation’s 10 best selling brands … W e will continually strive to meet the preference of adult …[w]e conduct our business in a responsible and ethical manner, recognizing the risks associated with the use of cigarettes, and committed to being a constructive participant in various public policy issues involving smoking. (, RJR focuses its attention on product development and market expansion, while at the same time acknowledging their complicity 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 advertisements changed over time to combat obstacles they faced and acknowledge the organizational culture.

In the period of 1993 to 1995, RJR places many information advertisements in newspapers such as USA Today and The New York Times in an effort 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 immediate began paying for advertisements that claimed government regulation of tobacco would lead to higher crime, cost taxpayers billions of dollars to enforce regulations, and would impinge upon individuals’ basic civil rights. These appeals are entirely consistent with the difficult rhetorical position occupied by RJR in the face of rising public and political pressure for regulation. The first barrier or constraint RJR faced was the issue of their public credibility – or lack thereof. Cigarettes are known to cause cancer and efforts to forestall regulation are only going to increase the morality and morbidity of consumers. RJR, in this sense, is NOT a good corporate citizen and lacked the good name to present themselves credibility in public. In addition to a credibility crisis, RJR faced mounting public criticism and pressure for reform. The continued attacks on their name and reputation further meant that the company needed to mount a vigorous defense. Thus, facing a potential sea-change in their business environment, RJR had to really work hard. Finally, RJR faced the barrier of apathy or ignorance. To 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 – particularly if they were non-smokers. In short, RJR faced a number of hurdles to the effective receipt of their message. The following section will outline how RJR confronted these barriers.

One particular affective appeal used by RJR to arose public attention to the issue of regulation was based on the experience of Canada when they increased tobacco taxes and experienced a growth in crime. The advertisement noted that Canada rolled back its taxes on cigarettes it passed two years prior to the massive upsurge in smuggling and organized crime. The illegal activities created a climate of fear and violence throughout the country (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 war on smoking will only create additional federal bureaucracy to regular tobacco and that the government should concentrate on more urgent social issues (Reynolds, 159). A third appeal, and probably the most effective, was to point out that basic individual rights to choose were being violated by the government. Results from a poll taken in 1993 confirmed that 9 out of 10 American believe that adults should have the right to choose for themselves whether or not to smoke (Reynolds, 155). In addition to this poll, RJR provided testimonials from smokers and non-smokers. One non-smoker stated, “The role the government should be to inform. They should just give me the information and allow me the freedom to make my own decisions” (Reynolds, 145). Testimonials from nonsmokers on the violation of their constitutional rights to choose or at least to have a say in the issue are more effective to the general public than that of smokers. The seemingly disinterested, unbiased statements translate into the appearance of a broad coalition of interests favor maintaining the status quo keeping tobacco regulation very loose.

The above references advertisements were the original focus of RJR’s persuasive tactics against government regulation starting in 1993. However, as their campaign continued, RJR focused its message on the education of children, the dangers of smoking and need to have discussions with parents and teachers to 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 education children about the risks of tobacco and avoiding peer pressure should be left to parents or teachers (Reynolds, 157). RJR argues that increasing federal bureaucracy will not only fail to decrease underage smoking but that states need to enforce the laws on the books meant to keep children from accessing cigarettes. It is this later approach of following the law already established that RJR believes 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 exemplify 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 rather are open to new inputs from outside. Interdependence argues that systems rely open one another for support. RJR exemplifies these ideas when they create 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 which both play upon their fears, as well as showing how a free society and 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 simply 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 have a desire to forge a relationship with that group (French and Rave, 150). In a number of the 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 is speaking out on the issue. 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 smokes 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 advertisements were very effective for a number of 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 appeals by its broad acceptance and support of any number of interests 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 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 government seem both ineffectual and impotent. This is literally depicted on their advertisement on page 157 of the bloated and toothless bureaucrat. RJR is able to effectively allay ignorance or apathy about their position by making their interests appear more broad and less partisan in nature. The hostility they confront given their obvious lack of credibility is transformed into resentment and distrust of government. Finally, RJR presents what appears to be broad public consensus against regulation and further restriction of tobacco to show at least a stalemate in the political move 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 regulation. 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 make the decision, not government. Though RJR recognizes in their mission statement their public commitment to combat the negative effects of smoking, 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 the models of organizational culture, effective organizations are largely those which present a consistent 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 is able to create a clear and cogent message from management about the implications of regulation and be pro-active in presenting their case to the public before they are overtaken by regulation. RJR is able, through a series of advertisements, to both diffuse criticism of their practice and simultaneously build support for their agenda. This is no small feat and was critical in the ultimate resolution of the conflict over tobacco regulation.



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

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 semll 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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