Ford (2012)

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This report[1] explores the role that packaging plays for tobacco products. It was written by Allison Ford at the Centre for Tobacco Control Research at the University of Stirling. The Centre is core funded by Cancer Research UK. Ford is also a member of the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies which is funded from the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK, the Economic and Social Research Council, the Medical Research Council and the National Institute of Health Research, under the auspices of the UK Clinical Research Collaboration.

The report purports to examine packaging from the viewpoint of marketing and the tobacco industry, and 'young peoples' attitude to cigarette packaging. When the report came out, it was press-released in such a way that it produced headlines such as

  • Designer packs being used to lure new generation of smokers[2]
  • Tobacco companies resorting to slick presentation to lure kids[3]

Unfortunately the report tells a completely different story to the press release that resulted from it.

Out of date data


Parts of the report are misleading in that they use out of date data. For example on page "9" (11th page) they have a picture of 20 Mayfair cigarettes with a flash of £4.92 on the top corner to demonstrate Price Marked Packs (PMP). At the time of publication, 20 Mayfair cigarettes were £6.49[4]

Most of the paper up to page 26(28th) is largely re-hashing and selective quoting of previous studies and papers that go back to 1961, including Wakefield et al. (2000) which itself quotes form papers in the 1950s.

The actual study

The new data the report presents starts on page 27(29) with the comment

Consistent with previous qualitative plain packaging research focus groups were employed to gain in-depth exploratory insights into how young people respond to packaging.

Given that there has been little 'previous qualitative plain packaging research' and that focus groups (what people think when they're told what to think[5]) are not a good indicator to what people will actually do, this raises the first problem with the research - it's measuring what people think they'll do; not what they actually will do. From the same section:

The lead moderator guided the discussion while a second moderator recorded observations

Since plain packaging hasn't (yet) been tried out in real-life anywhere yet, all of these experiments are mere speculation. Nevertheless, since the anti-smokers use studies such as this to promote plain packaging, it should at least try to indicate that plain packaging would make a difference.


As is usual with such cohort studies, there was a small number of participants - 6 groups of 8. From later comments (section it is alluded that all participants were from Scotland.

In total eight focus groups, divided equally by gender and social grade (ABC1/C2DE), were conducted with young people aged 15 years (N->48). It was not possible to split the groups evenly by smoking status, as was intended, due to difficulty in recruiting smokers at this age group. [...]nine participants admitted to being regular smokers (smoke one or more cigarettes a week)

Since (one of) the purpose(s) of the study was to gauge the effect of current packaging on encouraging young people to smoke, one would have thought that if they wanted to, they could easily find (one presumes,) 24 15 yr old smokers to participate.

Sadly, since they couldn't get the sample they wanted they proceeded to speculate the numbers in their favour:

Five non-smokers also said they had smoked in the past. However, resulting discussions led the moderators to suspect the true number of smokers to be higher, with around one-third of the sample, if not regularly smoking, experimenting or smoking occasionally.

Still not the half they wanted.


First they talked about packaging in general, using vaguely the same criteria in London Economics (2012) - low/mid/premium brands of toiletries, sweets, drinks.

They then moved onto cigarettes, with currently available brands and a made up brand 'Kerrods' which represented a plain packet (dark brown.)

Eight further boxes with different methods of opening and shapes, but decorated as 'plain packs' were also introduced.

'Grouping' exercises were carried out, grouping the non-tobacco products by categories such as appealing/unappealing. This was followed by a similar exercise (after discussion) with the branded packs plus Kerrods.

Due to 'time constraints' one of the activities (the 'show cards' where statements such as stylish/not stylish, cool/uncool) was only half completed by all the groups - each group only went through half the cards.

Finally the 'grouping' exercise was carried out using the plain packs.

Discussions were ongoing throughout the exercises.


Packaging awareness

Generally, there was little awareness of different styles of tobacco packaging apart from the key brand, which for the participants in this study, was Mayfair. Most participants could describe Mayfair’s blue pack design and this was viewed as a standard tobacco pack. It was seen as a popular, every-day pack, commonly smoked by family members and peers. It was also a pack to be seen with for ‘fitting-in’ purposes. Participants did not view this pack as particularly attractive or as a good design, but it was sometimes described as cool and good quality because of its popularity.

Aside from Mayfair, there was little prior awareness of the packs used in the focus groups.

So despite the assumption that cigarette packaging is aimed, at least partially, at younger people, Ford seems to have found 48 of them where there is 'generally little awareness of [...] tobacco packaging' apart from the one they see friends and family smoking.

However, it appeared that participants were seeing most of the packs used in the focus groups for the first time.

This was despite a general perception that tobacco packs were everywhere and seen countless times a day in shops, vending machines, public smoking areas and on the ground.

Perhaps Ford could have chosen some better known brands rather than picking obscure ones such as - ah - they're not explicitly listed. I assume among them are the ones mentioned as asides:

A small number of participants had seen the innovative B&H slide and Marlboro Bright Leaf packs before. On occasion, some participants could recall seeing the Lambert & Butler, Pall Mall and Silk Cut packs and the Golden Virginia pouch.

It would be difficult to find less obscure ones to be honest.

Pack's rôle in youth smoking

To some extent the pack appeared peripheral compared with the cigarette in youth smoking, particularly at the initiation/experimentation stage. The general perception was that young people would either ‘ jump in’, i.e. pool their money among a group of friends to buy a pack, or buy single cigarettes from someone in school known to have a pack.

Again, another conclusion that packaging is irrelevant to encouraging younger people to smoke.

Innovation packaging

Packs with different methods of opening and unusual shapes sparked much interest and curiosity, resulting in some of the strongest responses and preferences among participants.

Could that be because they hadn't seen them before? Aren't these supposed to be everywhere so the 'younger people' can see them and buy them? Apparently not.

Method of opening

Two packs with innovative openings (Marlboro Bright Leaf and B&H slide) produced some of the strongest reactions across the groups. When shown the openings, all but one group were openly impressed and interested in the gadgetry, although this group still rated these packs positively. Initial reactions included several exclamations of ‘wow’ and there were obvious displays of enjoyment in opening these packs.


Again - if the packaging is so important to getting young people to take up smoking, how come Ford found 48 young people who'd never seen them before?

Image-based packaging

The focus groups highlighted that all packaging can create a brand image from its design, whether positive or negative. The groups also showed young people to be adept at identifying how on-pack features such as colour, font, brand name and background design; impact on brand and product perceptions.

Unless, of course, as shown above it's on a packet of cigarettes.

Plain pack perceptions

Placing the ‘Kerrods’ plain pack alongside branded packs for the tobacco packaging activities gave insights into plain pack perceptions and the messages a plain pack communicates relativeto branded packs. The groups gave no indication they suspected the plain pack was anything but a genuine pack, although this may be explained by the low brand and pack awareness of all but the most popular brands.

They almost had it at the end there, but they ignored it. 48 15 year-olds can't tell the difference between normal packs and a plain pack because they don't know what the normal packs look like.

Plain packs differing in shape and size

Grouping and rating the eight plain packs with different structures proved the most difficult task as participants struggled to group and distinguish between the packs.

Strength and harm

[on the plain packets] "There is no information on the packets except for the warnings... You can’t distinguish one from the other, except from shape" (BOYS, ABC1)

Something's not right here - earlier on, when describing the methodology Ford said: Plain pack [...] The plain pack featured a text health warning on the front, a pictorial warning and UK duty paid label on the back, and ingredients and emissions information on the side - in line with current UK regulations for tobacco packaging Plain packs which differ in shape, size and method of opening Eight packs which differed in shape, size and method of opening, all on sale in the UK at the time of the research, were spray painted dark brown for the purposes of the study. Brand names were covered up to explore the impact, if any, of the different structures. As with the plain pack, all tobacco packaging markings required in the UK were displayed. (emphasis added)

Either the legally required markings (such as tar content) were there, or they weren't.

Emotional pack responses

One key finding was that messages within packaging triggered emotional responses in participants.

But as previously pointed out, they don't know about the packaging - at least not until this experiment that is.

Importance of packaging for tobacco products

"I don’t think non-smokers would be, like think I’m going to smoke, just cos that packet is nice "(GIRL, ABC1)

It's interesting that Ford chose to include this quote.