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Come Out Smoking

One of the harsh truths of the marketplace is that an advertising strategy that works for one product will not necessarily work for another. Sneaker companies seem to have no trouble pushing their merchandise out the door via dark, brooding, TV commercials featuring unpleasant, anti-social young men taunting one another, but the same approach would …

One of the harsh truths of the marketplace is that an advertising strategy that works for one product will not necessarily work for another. Sneaker companies seem to have no trouble pushing their merchandise out the door via dark, brooding, TV commercials featuring unpleasant, anti-social young men taunting one another, but the same approach would likely not fare well for fast-food chains, shaving cream, or mutual funds.

The catchy phrase “Just Do It” would take on an entirely different meaning were it used in an ad campaign for Tide detergent or Mr. Clean. Cool guys just don’t do laundry and they certainly don’t enjoy cleaning. That’s one reason they have such a hard time getting dates.

Still, certain phenomenally successful marketing strategies could have been imitated in cases where a similar approach was appropriate. Take the cigar industry. About 10 years ago, the cigar industry, with problems on the health and image fronts, was in trouble:

Stogies had become an old-fashioned product associated with crooked boxing promoters, shady longshoremen, and guys whose favorite word is “vig.”

Gradually, however, the industry succeeded in turning that perception around. Upscale magazines like Cigar Aficionado helped give the image-poor cigar a new cachet. Famous cigar smokers like Red Auerbach were recruited to improve the stogie’s battered image. Little by little, a sea change occurred. Smokers’ clubs began to appear. Famous movie stars were photographed smoking upscale products. Most recently, the whole babe-with-a-stogie trend started, with the likes of Demi Moore and Goldie Hawn appearing in popular magazines and movie ads sporting huge cigars. The cigar has come to be seen as an emblem of power, prestige, and most importantly, success. Unlike the cigarette-increasingly dismissed as a downscale product-the cigar is widely viewed as being cool.

Given the remarkable turnaround, it’s clear that other similarly beleaguered industries might have done well to borrow a few pages from stogie makers’ book. The beef industry, for example, midway through the ’80s, faced a serious image problem, as health concerns steadily eroded the public’s consumption of red meat. To combat this, the industry launched an aggressive advertising campaign using highly recognizable movie stars such as James Garner and Cybill Shepherd to rekindle the passion for beef.

But the campaign was hardly an unqualified success. Both Mr. Garner’s heart problems and a snafu over whether Ms. Shepherd was actually an enthusiastic meat eater, caused problems for the campaign. But, indeed, there were other reasons the campaign failed to persuade Americans to revert to their legendary carnivorous roots.

When I walk through the streets of Manhattan these days, I regularly see Mel Gib-son’s and Demi Moore’s faces beaming up at me from the cover of magazines like Smoker and Cigar Aficionado. Where then are the meat industry’s magazines? Why, for example, is there no glossy magazine with a title like Beef Buff or Cutlet Lover? Why do I never see movie stars and TV personalities beaming up at me from the cover of Angus Aficionado, Filet Fan, Sirloin Supporter?

And why are there no clubs that organize regular events uniting unrepentant, unreconstructed lovers of meat products? Why don’t we see more product placement in movies, where instead of having Diane Keaton and Goldie Hawn brandishing humongous cigars, we see them tearing into a large hunk of steak? And why don’t more celebrities appear on late night talk shows munching on a cheeseburger and telling David Letterman how much they enjoy a nice portion of prime rib after a long day on the set?

Many other industries suffering from serious image problems have been equally slow to pick up the ball and run with it. Why isn’t there a glitzy coffee-table magazine called Amtrak Aficionado? Couldn’t a publication with a name like LP Lover have prevented the almost overnight demise of the vinyl record? And why did the music industry fail to seize the bull by the horns and introduce a periodical called The Accordionist?

Granted, a clever marketing strategy would not have necessarily rescued the 8-track player, the CB radio, or the CPM operating system from obscurity. But it might have been worth a try. Had the interstate bus industry taken measures to develop a certain cachet-perhaps by hiring renowned busophiles such as John Madden as spokespersons-what now appears to be an irreversible decline might have been averted. One thought is to introduce special bus routes that cater only to cigar smokers, and to provide each passenger with a complimentary copy of the magazine Bus Beautiful. If the cigar industry, with all its problems, could turn things around, no industry is completely beyond redemption.

Except, perhaps, for the nuclear power industry.


Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron’s and The Wall Street Journal.

About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.