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Philip Morris Changes Its Name But Not Its Tactics

The Marlboro Man is going under the PR knife attempting to "Altria" his image, but will it work any better than the company's failed TV ad campaign?
by Tom PriceSpecial to CorpWatch
March 14th, 2002

Wanted Marlboro Man. Photo: Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids Video
Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids

Marlboro Man Wanted. Photo: Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids Video
Marlboro Man Wanted. Photo: Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids Video

After a multi-million dollar PR campaign touting their charitable work failed to improve their image, the executives at Philip Morris Companies have decided on a wholesale corporate makeover, centered around a name change to the lofty sounding Altria.

Gone will be the two-headed deer crest familiar to millions of tobacco addicts. In its place will be a mosaic logo reminiscent of a Rubik's Cube-perhaps to represent their diverse (and non-cigarette) interests. It's a dramatic, creative move, and P.M. executives hope they can convince the public that they are something other tobacco merchants.

The November 16th 2001 announcement comes on the heels of what has widely been seen as a failed $250 million dollar corporate image advertising campaign, which highlighted the company's charitable contributions and downplayed the deadly and addictive tobacco products that built the company. After spending the quarter billion dollars ceaselessly touting their philanthropic efforts, the tobacco giant still ranked second to last -- beating only exploding tire maker Bridgestone Firestone -- in the in a survey of corporate reputations, conducted by The Reputation Institute and Harris Interactive.

Many observers believe the impetus behind the proposed change is to put distance between the company's lucrative stock and its unseemly tobacco image. The company has long sought to use its vast riches to diversify their product line and public persona in recent years by snapping up family-friendly food and beverage companies like Kraft, Nabisco, and Miller Beer. And, Philip Morris has been aggressively expanding overseas in response to shrinking domestic markets. The company made $5 billion in profits overseas in 1998, versus just $1.5 billion in the US.

"We are still in the foothills when it comes to exploring the full opportunities of many of our new markets," explains Philip Morris CEO Geoffrey Bible. Although smoking rates in the US continue to decline, they're exploding across the globe, with the result that deaths from cigarettes will soon become the leading cause of death worldwide.


Will the Public Buy the New Name/New Image?

Plastic Surgery Whitewash. Photo: Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids Video
Plastic Surgery Whitewash. Photo: Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids Video

Anti-smoking groups are crying foul, saying the name change is a cynical attempt to distance the company from its tobacco roots without changing its product lines. The tobacco giant's attempt to greenwash its image is the theme of a new animated web cartoon released by the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. In the cartoon, the Marlboro Man is on the run down dark alleys, avoiding capture for, as the "Wanted" posters say, the deaths of millions of smokers. After finding a willing plastic surgeon, the familiar icon of the tobacco giant goes under the knife and becomes the pretty, if scarred, little girl named "Altria," who in spite of the makeover can't stop marketing her products to kids.

The cartoon highlights the fact that in spite of a 1998 agreement to stop marketing tobacco to children, Philip Morris still does. That same year, their Chinese division was blasted for mailing free cigarettes to minors. Meanwhile, in Albania, Niger and Jordan the company hired underage girls who then gave away free cigarettes to children.

Now, controversy has followed even the seemingly innocuous move to change the company's name. First came questions over the name Altria itself. The made-up word is a derivation of "altus," Latin for higher, according to CEO Geoffrey Bible. But experts question Bible's interpretation -- and his motives.

"Altria, as you know, means nothing, and can't be any derivative of altus --altr -- is a nonexistent stem. But it sounds pretty good, doesn't it? And has no suggestion at all of emphysema or lung cancer," according to a Latin Professor quoted by TheStreet.com, an investor website.

Then there were the seemingly self-deceptive reasons behind the change. "The name was chosen to reflect our aspiration to be a financially strong global family of consumer products companies and a commitment to responsible business practices," noted Bible, who was paid a $5,000,000 salary in 2000. He failed to explain, however, how selling an addictive carcinogenic product was in line with "responsible business practices."

Altria Playing in the Park. Photo: Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids Video
Altria Playing in the Park. Photo: Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids Video

What's more someone else already owns the Altria name. In an if-it-weren't-so-sad-it-would-be-funny bit of irony, the name is already in use by an Alabama based provider of service to physicians and health care companies, Altria Healthcare Corporation. AHC immediately contacted Philip Morris in hopes of getting them to change their plans, to no avail. Sharing a name with a tobacco company would be "kind of a challenge when we're in health care and we're working directly with physicians and hospitals," according to AHC chairman Warren Smedley. "It would be very, very difficult for us to operate normally with that kind of scenario,'' he added.

The final decision on whether to change the name will be up to stockholders at their annual meeting April 25th, but Philip Morris is so confident they've already registered and begun using www.altria.com

One question still remains: after having given up their name in a bold new step into the future, any chance they'll also change their famous "MO", for Marlboro, stock ticker? Don't hold your breath.


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After spending eight years working as a conservationist on Capitol Hill, Tom Price returned to his home town of Salt Lake City. He now works as a freelance journalist covering environment, culture and travel. Tom worked briefly as consultant to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.