Plain cigarette packaging: the nanny state meets Naomi Klein
ABC News, 17 August 2012
What is motoring the Australian Government’s campaign to put cigarettes in plain packaging?
It is more than old-fashioned nanny-statism. It is nanny-statism-meets-Naomi-Klein. It is petty government authoritarianism mashed together with the anti-corporate, anti-brands outlook of the author of the influential book No Logo and various other anti-globalisation campaigners of the 1990s/2000s.
What the plain-packaging frenzy really represents is both officialdom’s penchant for lifestyle policing and the belief that glossy, seductive brands can tempt people into doing dangerous things and therefore must be more closely monitored.
It is remarkable how much the stuffy Australians who support plain packaging now sound like the Starbucks-smashing, Nike-hating, brand-loathing radical protesters of the 1990s.
From December 1, all cigarettes in Australia will have to be sold in packets with no branding or logos on them. The name of the brand can appear, but in a generic font chosen by the state.
And anti-smoking types are openly celebrating this act of state censorship against certain companies’ right to promote their brands as a victory for common sense.
So Kylie Lindorff of Cancer Council Australia is celebrating that “the next generation of young people… will not be exposed to glossy, seductive tobacco packaging”.
An official at the World Health Organisation congratulated Australia for removing “the seductive colours and logos on [cigarette] packets”, claiming this will help expose tobacco companies for what they are: “thoroughly unglamorous merchants of death and disease.”
The thinking behind this respectable anti-brand agitation is that by making cigarette packets less colourful and “seductive”, we might finally open the dumb masses’ eyes to how unsexy and downright dangerous smoking is.
As one health report puts it, “visually seductive tobacco packaging” is one of the key ways that the tobacco industry “captures and retains customers by addicting them”.
The report tells us that “colours and fonts tend to produce particular responses in customers” and that “imagery and symbols exert very powerful effects” - on us ordinary mortals, you understand, not on state employees or health experts, who are of course immune to the brain-invading charms of Big Tobacco branding. Apparently, state-designed plain packets will help save loads of lives, since they will “reduce the temptation of tobacco”.
And thus it falls to the state to save us from the “temptation” by shielding our eyes from “seductive” logos, in a similar way that priests used to claim to be able to “deliver us from temptation” by limiting what we could know and inculcating us with The Truth.
We should always be suspicious of any government initiative that treats adults like children, claiming we can be bamboozled and swayed by “imagery and symbols” in our local off-licences just as surely as babies can be by a colourful Fisher Price mobile.
This snobbish, disdainful view comes straight from the anti-globalisation movement of the 1990s and 2000s.
That uprising of rich kids and left-leaning writers against what some of them called the “Empire of Signs” - that is, the spread of instantly recognisable brands around the globe - was likewise underpinned by the elitist belief that ordinary people, what we used to call “plebs”, were being corrupted by branding.
Klein claimed that people are being “subliminally manipulated” by big brands - that is, we’ve been turned into nodding-dog consumers by “rampant ad bombardment and commercialisation”. We have had brand obedience “implanted in our brains”.
Other anti-globalisation thinkers invented a new word - “brandwashing” - to describe how the little people were brainwashed by fancy packaging and cool brands. In his 2011 book Brandwashed, Martin Lindstorm said big corporations “manipulate our minds”.
The idea that seductive brands turn ordinary people into slobbering, grasping consumers, to such an extent that they will even take up a habit that is bad for them, like smoking, has been most vociferously promoted by the radical magazine Adbusters.
Founded in Canada in 1989, and an inspirer of both the anti-globalisation movement and the more recent Occupy movement, the Adbusters outlook on consumerism is riddled with the most nauseating, Victorian-style snobbery.
It claims big brands and incessant advertising have turned the masses into an “army of zombies”, with “glazed eyes, blank stares, faces twisted into ugly masks of want”. Adbusters is particularly vocal about the power of tobacco brands to “dupe” people, to “manipulate people into addiction”.
All of those achingly elitist sentiments are now being reproduced in Australian officialdom’s war on tobacco brands.
Indeed, the drive towards plain packaging can be seen as a more respectable version of “culture jamming”.
That is a tactic used by Adbusters and others to interfere with the “signs” and “messages” of big corporations, such as by spraypainting over big billboard ads or changing the meaning of an ad by adding a new image or logo to it.
“Culture jamming” is described as an attempt to “disrupt or subvert… corporate advertising”.
What a perfect description of what the Australian Government is now doing with its plain packaging law. Australian officials fancy themselves as the serious savers of the little people from the grave evil of tobacco brands, but really they are just behaving like infantile “culture jammers”.
Both radical and official “culture jammers” seem to believe that the rest of us have minds like putty, easily moulded and remoulded by evil, faceless brand promoters. But people are not automatons; we fundamentally choose what to eat, what to wear, whether to smoke.
Karl Marx described the realm of adverting and consumption as the most civilising thing in capitalist society.
“[The capitalist] searches for means to spur workers on to consumption, to give his ware new charms, to inspire workers with new needs by constant chatter. It is precisely this side of the relation of capital and labour which is an essential civilising moment…”
The anti-logo radicals and their copycats in officialdom are a million miles away from serious radical thinking such as this.
Read more of my articles for ABC News and other outlets here.