How Big Tobacco’s Marketing Tactics Continue To Encourage Americans’ Unhealthy Habits

For the bulk of the 20th century, Big Tobacco reigned supreme in the advertising world. Through aggressive marketing on billboards, magazine covers, television, radio, and corporate and celebrity sponsorship, cigarette manufacturers successfully hooked half of all American males and a quarter of American females in the 1950s and ’60s on cigarettes — a corporate coup whose adverse health effects are being felt to this day.

But just because the tobacco lobby’s stranglehold on Washington has somewhat subsided over the last several decades doesn’t mean that its marketing strategies have been left to the dustbin of history. To the contrary, manufacturers of some of America’s most medically harmful commodities — including processed foods and indoor tanning beds — take their advertising campaigns straight from Big Tobacco’s playbook. Unfortunately for Americans, the combination of these successful marketing strategies and the products’ addictive qualities make it extraordinarily difficult for consumers to change their lifestyles — even when the commodity in question makes them sick. For instance, somewhere between 14 and 20 percent of smokers who develop lung cancer continue to smoke even after being diagnosed with the disease.

Here are three Big Tobacco marketing strategies that food makers and tanning salons mimic in an effort to achieve that level of brand loyalty:

1. Gaining users’ trust through the use of authority figures.

This is perhaps the tobacco industry’s most infamous marketing tactic from the mid-20th century. In numerous television advertisements from the era, cigarette ads prominently featured doctors and nurses winding down from a long day of work with a smoke. Camel even had an ad claiming that “more doctors smoke Camels than any other brand.” The appeal to authority inherent in this tactic is extremely successful, as consumers react by assuming that the product use is medically safe.


Doctors have long ditched the likes of Philip Morris — but food makers and tanning salons use this same appeal to authority in this day and age. According to a landmark 2010 study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, researchers compared tanning marketing techniques to those used by tobacco distributors in the 1950s and found striking similarities — specifically, the use of physicians and faulty medical research downplaying health risks in their ads. “The thinking behind these ads is that if physicians do something, then somehow it must be okay,” said study author Dr. David Jones. “However, these ads omit the results of a recent survey indicating that 100 percent of dermatologists and 84 percent of non-dermatologist physicians would discourage UV tanning for non-medical purposes, even in healthy patients.”

While the food industry is a bit more hard-pressed to find doctors willing to peddle products high in salt, sugar, and fat, they compensate through corporate sponsorship with athletes and sports organizations. For instance, McDonald’s alone is affiliated with the National Hockey League, the Olympics, the FIFA World Cup, and has had a line of athletes ranging from Kobe Bryant to Venus Williams as its spokespeople.

2. Playing up the misleading “health benefits” of using a product.

While Big Tobacco would have a hard time claiming that their products are, on the whole, “good” for health, it successfully got around this problem by playing up the individual “healthy elements” of its products. For instance, manufacturers in the 1960s emphasized their “safer” cigarettes with reduced additives or more effective filters. As Dr. Jones wrote in his study, this allowed cigarette makers to disingenuously play up safety features and “benefits” in their products while conveniently ignoring that those features are only necessary to counteract how harmful cigarettes were to begin with.

Big Food employs similar methods by stalling aggressive public health initiatives while playing on public perceptions of what constitutes “healthy” food in order to sell their products. In a particularly egregious example of this, McDonald’s “McWrap” uses green wrapping to imply that it’s a healthy item — as planned in internal company emails — even though it has close to 600 calories and 44 percent of an average persons’ recommended daily fat intake. Similarly, tanning salons use dermatologists to counteract melanoma risk claims by making misleading arguments that their tanning beds contain “healthier” UV rays than other competitors — a largely arbitrary distinction, since both types of UV rays present a cancer risk. Tanning salons also emphasize the health benefits of vitamin D while ignoring that intake of the vitamin through UV is much less healthy than getting it through a supplement.

3. Appealing to users’ intelligence.

This is an advertising tactic that tries to lure consumers by convincing them that they’re making an intelligent decision by choosing a certain product. Cigarette makers used this relentlessly through the previously mentioned ads featuring doctors and campaigns employing official-sounding statistics that revealed very little about the actual health effects of their products.


Fast forward to the 21st century, and you can see the same methodology being applied to fast foods and tanning beds. Subway regularly cites caloric, fat, and protein statistics about its sandwiches to appeal to consumers’ intelligence — without mentioning the obvious caveat that very few of their sandwiches actually meet those criteria. Tanning salons mimic this tactic by making the smart-sounding argument that tanning beds spare users from sunburn by allowing Americans to get a base coast without all of the peeling skin. Of course, this completely avoids the reality that there is a significant trade-off between less sunburn and increased cancer risk due to concentrated UV rays.

These marketing strategies have paid off enormous dividends for Big Food and the indoor tanning industry — but a huge cost to public health. Obese Americans are among the least likely populations to stop consuming processed and unhealthy fast foods, and a study released on Monday finds that “27.3% of melanoma survivors who answered the 2010 National Health Interview Survey said they never wore sunscreen” and 2.1 percent of melanoma survivors still used tanning beds. Parents are also likely to give minors permission to use tanning beds in significant excess of recommended exposure levels. So the products and the industries may have changed — but the sell strategy largely remains the same.