The Smoker's Badge

Jason McGarvey
June 01, 1996

A badge is a "token, mark, decoration, or insignia of office, rank, or membership," according to Webster's Dictionary. To Marvin Goldberg, professor of marketing at Penn State, a smoker's badge is "a certain brand of cigarette that represents his or her social identity." "This badge value' of smoking," says Goldberg, "is the primary reason teens start to smoke.

"Cigarette companies would like to convey that smoking results mainly from peer pressure," he continues—that somehow there are these four teens who approach a fifth and say, "We're all smoking and we want you to smoke." In adopting this heavy-handed perspective, the cigarette manufacturer try minimize their own responsibility for kids starting to smoke.

In fact, there is good reason to believe that often what happens is there are four teens off in a corner somewhere, dressed in a certain way, carrying themselves in a certain manner, and smoking. A fifth teen, at some distance away, is scanning his or her environment and saying, "Is this the kind of group that I want to be drawn to?" Asks Goldberg, "Why are the peers drawn to that brand of cigarette? How did they get the idea that smoking was a part of their lifestyle? And why is it a magnet for the fifth person?"

Advertising is far from the only influence leading kids to smoke. "Kids are not robots," Goldberg says. "They're not sitting in front of the television thinking, They're telling me to do this, so I gotta go do it.'" Advertising works in combination with many other influences, such as family and peer pressure. Many studies, for example, have found that a kid who comes from a family of smokers is more likely to start smoking. However, says Goldberg, "There's not a whole lot we can do about whether parents smoke. There is a lot we can do about whether advertising targets kids, or what kinds of advertising marketers put out." According to Goldberg, reducing the badge value of smoking is one place to start.

In March of 1995, he and a group of colleagues put this idea into practice in a Canadian study, which was designed to eliminate the packaging influence of certain Canadian brands: Among the brands they studied, two are sold in America—Benson & Hedges and Capri. Goldberg's role in the study was to conduct a "visual image experiment."

To eliminate the badge value, he removed the cigarettes' distinctive labels by making one version of each package plain white. Another version bore a small icon depicting diseased lungs. His resulting sample consisted of the ten brands, each with an unaltered package, a plain white package, and a white package bearing the lungs symbol.

Goldberg presented these packages to 152 Toronto teenagers in random order. The teenagers also randomly viewed eight black-and-white 5" x 6" pictures portraying various "person-types" (teenage male, teenage female, businessman, biker, middle-aged female, older female, and older fisherman). They were asked to rate the appropriateness of the package to the person. The teens easily associated several brands, such as Capri with the teenage female and Benson & Hedges with the businessman images. However, they found it more difficult to associate the white packages, especially the "lungs" packages, with any particular person.

Goldberg explains, "By taking away the uniqueness associated with a brand, you take away its badge value, or capacity to facilitate self-definition. If all cigarette packages looked the same, a teenager could not take a certain brand and make that his or her own unique badge."

While looking at the effects of badge value on adolescents, Goldberg has also been searching for ways to counter it. He and Health and Human Development professors Lori Bechtel, Lynn Kozlowski, and John Graham are currently revising a program started by the Scott Newman Center in Los Angeles that teaches kids to look at commercials skeptically. The five-hour-a-week program helps sixth- through eighth-graders identify tactics advertisers use to make their products more attractive.

"This is a good age and a bad age to conduct this program," explains Goldberg. "It's a good age, because it is the age when children first start experimenting with alcohol and cigarettes. So we are sort of nipping the problem in the bud. It's a bad age, because many of these kids are not yet facing the real pressures to smoke." Because the program focuses on advertising, Goldberg adds, "Kids seem to get more interested than if you just tell them the dangers of smoking. Kids learn that there's a strategy being used when you see those cute guys and girls smoking on TV.

"Unfortunately," says Goldberg, "it seems like we're going through a cycle again where Hollywood actors and actresses are portrayed as being cool if they have a cigarette in their hand. But often that cigarette didn't land there by chance. There are major efforts to place the product with the star. When you see someone drinking a can of Coke in a movie, you can be sure that it isn't there by accident. By teaching children to understand these marketing methods, we hope to reduce their influence."

The issue of persuading teens not to smoke has the strong support of the Clinton administration. At a May conference Goldberg co-chaired, a keynote speaker was Bill Novelli from "Tobacco Free Kids," an agency coordinating anti-tobacco efforts. Much of the anti-tobacco research presented at the conference, including Goldberg's, will be considered by the administration.

"Public health is the core of social marketing," Goldberg says. "It is up to advertisers to be responsible for what they market."

Marvin E. Goldberg, Ph.D., is Irving and Irene Bard professor of marketing in the Smeal College of Business Administration, 707J Business Administration Building I, University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-3420. His collaborators include: John Liefield, Ph.D., professor of consumer studies at University of Guelph; Judith Madill-Marshall, Ph.D., associate professor of marketing at Carleton University; Harrie Vredenburg, Ph.D., associate professor of marketing and strategic management at University of Calgary; Nanistya Martohardjono, creative director at Spencer Francey Peters Inc., Toronto; Jacques Lefebvre, president at Tribu Lintas Inc., Montreal; and Gurprit Kindra, professor of marketing at University of Ottawa. The research was funded by the Canadian Department of Health. The program, "Adsmarts: An intervention invoking reactance to combat tobacco usage by youths," is based in part on the Scott Newman Foundation Media Literacy program of the same name.

Last Updated June 01, 1996