Philip Morris: Killing to Make a Difference

The Winner of the Winter Greenwash Award is... Philip Morris, the largest U.S.-based tobacco corporation, for its "Working to make a difference" television ad campaign. The commercials tell us moving stories of real people's struggles, and a not-so-subtle implication that Philip Morris has been the one to help them out of a jam through corporate charity. In particular, their commercial about a pregnant woman who leaves her abusive husband for the sake of her children, born and unborn, gets right to the pit of the stomach, through a nauseating combination of sympathy for the woman and disgust at the company using her story.*

Philip Morris Ad
Philip Morris Ad

Before we look a little closer at the ads, let's review a few basics about this remarkable company. Tobacco products kill about 4 million people annually worldwide (and that figure may rise to some 10 million, according to the World Health Organization.) Philip Morris is the world's largest cigarette manufacturer, with just about half of the U.S. market, and over 30% of the market in at least 19 other countries. So Philip Morris products are responsible for an astounding number of premature and preventable deaths for a single corporation. Philip Morris executives have consciously made their products more addictive and lied about it. Flouting science, they also denied the connection between smoking and cancer and the many other tobacco related health problems until they could not longer refute the facts. They have spent millions to evade liability in court for the consequences of their corporate behavior. So far, despite growing legal and regulatory constraints, and despite widespread animosity towards the company, it remains enormously profitable.

Nevertheless, at some point Philip Morris realized that things could go terribly wrong, as things had for asbestos companies driven into bankruptcy by lawsuits. It chose a two-pronged strategy to protect its financial future. First it diversified, mainly by buying Kraft, the largest food company in the U.S., and more recently, Nabisco. Second, it launched a giant corporate image campaign.

This image campaign has some interesting features. First, the company has taken an enormous risk, by advertising the fact that Kraft is a Philip Morris company. Some of the ads discuss Kraft's charitable works, but always mention that Kraft is "part of the Philip Morris family of companies." Their calculation is that Kraft's mainly benign reputation will rub off on Philip Morris, rather than PM's horrific reputation tainting Kraft brands.

They may end up wishing the American public had continued to believe Kraft was independent. INFACT, a Massachusetts-based non-profit group, has organized a boycott of Kraft foods as a strategy to put pressure on Philip Morris, and the group believes that the boycott will grow as people learn of Kraft's connection to Marlboro and Virginia Slims.

Secondly, unlike typical greenwash, there is no connection made between the company's products and their good works. No one smokes, no brand names are mentioned, and there isn't even a hint of PM's main business. It's as if they recognize that the dissonance in mentioning Marlboro and philanthropy in the same breath would be too harsh. Yet at the same time, it allows them to get the Philip Morris name back on TV, even though cigarette ads are banned. Pretty clever.

What about the "good works" of Philip Morris. Is there anything wrong with giving money to Meals-On-Wheels, battered women's shelters, and flood relief? Of course not. When you run a shelter, a concert series, or a conservation trust, and government money has dried up (largely because of policies that favor the same rich individuals and corporations you are now dependent on for private donations, but that's a longer story), you are likely to accept money from just about anywhere.

Nevertheless, the ads are misleading. While the actress in the ad about the battered wife makes many good points about the dynamics of domestic violence, it all goes awry when implying that Philip Morris is a friend of women. Ever since "You've Come A Long Way Baby," the perverse association of cigarettes and woman's emancipation has led large numbers of women to join the ranks of smokers. In fact, six years after Virginia Slims went on the market the rate of smoking among twelve year old girls jumped a startling 110%. By 1997 35% of female high school students were smokers, up from 27% six years earlier, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Title "Laura" From Philip Morris TV commercial
Partial story board

When I was 9 months


My husband beat me.

But thanks to Phillip Morris,

one of the largest supporters

of battered womens shelters,

women (like me) and children

are starting new lives.

From Philip Morris'

"Working to Make a Difference"

TV ad campaign

The ad also makes it seem like Philip Morris is especially concerned about children. But as INFACT has documented in their "Making A Killing" video, Marlboro Man is specifically designed to attract young smokers, and, especially in Asia, Philip Morris continues its tradition of luring young people into a lifelong, lethal habit.

Other ads imply that Philip Morris is a friend to people of color. For example an ad depicting an elderly black woman grateful for food deliveries, "especially the tangerines." But a few tangerines won't make up for the damage the Marlboro Man has done to African American health, especially considering that Philip Morris has targeted black consumers. In 1999 the company developed a menthol version of its popular Marlboro brand aimed at the African American market (76% of African American smokers smoke menthol cigarettes.) In addition, black neighborhoods have a higher density of cigarette bill boards and black publications, like Ebony and Jet, run more cigarette ads than mainstream magazines like Time and People.

A look at the numbers shows that Philip Morris largesse is not only self serving, but stingy. They say they spent $115 million in 1999 on charities, making them the third largest corporate giver donor in the country. They are also the ninth largest company by sales ($61.8 billion), and the eighth most profitable US company ($7.7 billion), so their place in the top ten charitable givers makes them only slightly more generous than their peers. $115 million is approximately 1.5% of PM's domestic profits. That's slightly higher than average for a U.S. corporation, but not wildly generous. Given the damage they have done, their giving does not begin to balance the scales.

How painful is it for Philip Morris to spend 100 million bucks? Not as painful as it is to watch my next door neighbor end his life in agony on a respirator and an oxygen machine, while the cold-hearted executives deny any connection between his emphysema and the two packs per day of Marlboros he smoked for 50 years. Here's another comparison. In 2000, Philip Morris spent $94 million to advertise Marlboro, $118 million to advertise Kraft brands, $92 million promoting Miller beer, and $142 million on corporate image advertising. When a company spends more to boast about humanitarian programs than on the programs themselves, that's greenwash.

*Classic greenwash contains beautiful nature imagery and examples of corporate environmental concern. The Philip Morris ads have neither. This is because we have expanded our definition of greenwash to include public relations on humanitarian themes. In the past few years, there has been a trend toward corporate PR on social issues such as poverty, hunger and human rights, in addition to green themes. We might consider these ads "bluewash," with the color blue standing for human rights. (Blue is the color of the UN flag, as well as the collar of workers.)

AMP Section Name:Greenwash Awards
  • 102 Greenwash Awards
  • 109 Tobacco

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