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Scare tactic packaging: Monthly design perspective, May 2011

Posted by: Dyfed "Fred" Richards on Tuesday, May 10 2011 03:14 PM

As brandchannel reported, the Australian government has recently announced moves to become the first country in the world to adopt plain packaging for cigarettes. This means removing logos and branding – as well as featuring graphics meant to disgust and shock the prospective buyer, along with a related health warning.

I would argue that Australia’s strategy isn’t likely to stop anybody from buying cigarettes – just as a similar strategy isn’t likely to stop anybody from buying bullets. If someone is intent on buying a product with known negative side effects, “scare tactic” packaging is not likely to deter the sale. However, this approach does set a potential precedent for categories as extensive as household products, lawn and garden, alcohol, pharmaceuticals, and car care.

Any product that could be deemed lethal beyond its intended use might fall into the same situation as cigarettes in Australia. Requiring that such a product be branded in a manner that articulates its negative side effects is a dangerous path to follow, as the negative can actually become a positive to some consumers. Such has been the case in movies where the villain – for example, The Joker in “Batman” – becomes more attractive to audiences than the hero himself. Also, what about the potential of the anti-brand becoming a brand? To see how this can work, simply look at the MUJI brand, which deliberately pursues the pure and the ordinary, and offers products that avoid unnecessary functionality, an excess of decoration, and needless packaging.

I believe that Australian consumers will eventually become immune to the arresting images and statements inherent in this scare tactic packaging and that it will have absolutely no effect on anyone who wants to smoke. Consumers begin to accept the visual language of any given category over time; this then becomes the visual stimulus for the category rather than a deterrent. Frankly, while other categories may be less disturbing than cigarettes in terms of product content, their packaging is just as off-putting in terms of visual stimulation and bland thinking. Yet, consumers welcome this visual language into their lives and homes every day.

It is clear that the Australian government is hoping to stun consumers into not purchasing cigarettes. However, my guess is that this negative packaging approach will merely slow sales in the near term and they will rebound later. If the government really feels this strongly about the product, then why not ban cigarettes altogether? That would send a far more profound message than this cosmetic approach.

In the end, consumers only know what they know and find it very difficult to articulate why they like or do not like a particular product. Even in flash card exercises or focus group sessions (e.g., “Do you like this image? Would you purchase this brand?”), they typically reference the language with which they are familiar. Keeping this in mind, the Australian government’s scare tactic packaging, designed to be a deterrent, may instead become part of the category vernacular.

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