Everyone knows the story of David and Goliath: the small, but brave shepherd who takes on a giant warrior and – against the odds – wins. For Professor Janet Hoek, originally a graduate in English, but now a marketing academic, it's an apt analogy that she uses to describe the battle between "social marketers" who take on the challenge of promoting public health measures and the corporations that market harmful products to consumers.
At the moment there aren't too many happy endings. Social marketers – like those who lobby against the widespread health damage caused by smoking and excessive alcohol consumption – ply their message amidst, what Hoek describes as, a "commercial cacophony" of hype and uber-appealing brands. It's an uphill battle for those pushing moderation, which is why Hoek's research focuses on how the marketing efforts behind products like tobacco, alcohol and fast food could be regulated for the sake of improved public health in the future.
Hoek is a specialist in marketing and public policy, particularly in relation to food and tobacco marketing, and in survey research methodology. She was previously an advisor to the government's Health Advisory Committee and has recently been invited to join the New Zealand Food Safety Authority Academy, a diverse group of food safety experts who advise the national food regulation organisation. She was called upon as an expert witness in the landmark 2006 smoking case, Pou vs British American Tobacco, as well as in litigation centred on the beer brand Budweiser.
With funding from the Health Research Council, Hoek, together with Professor Richard Edwards and Dr George Thomson (Wellington), is now setting out to determine young adults' perceptions of tobacco brands and to estimate the effect of larger warning labels on a cigarette brand's appeal.
"Tobacco kills 5,000 New Zealanders each year," says Hoek. "We need to find ways in which we can make it easier for people to give up, and create an environment that's more conducive to and supportive of cessation – and one that will deter initiation."
Hoek supports the use of marketing controls on the products themselves as part of this solution, but says it is vital such interventions are supported by sound evidence. Which is where her latest research, aimed at quantifying the brand appeal embodied in cigarette packaging and the deterrent effect of various marketing interventions on that packaging, comes in.
"Packaging has become an extremely important marketing tool for the tobacco industry," says Hoek. "It can't advertise as it used to and sponsorship is no longer available as a tool. So the industry has limited options, but it's amazingly sophisticated at using the options it does have. We know how important branding is, yet the tobacco industry continues to argue that branding is not important in attracting new users, that it's just a tool for facilitating brand switching."
Contrary to this argument, Hoek hypothesises that cigarette branding strategies recruit new smokers, and her research sets out to investigate this and related questions.
The project is divided into two sections. The first uses focus groups to explore how young people differentiate between tobacco brands based on packaging. It also gauges their views on larger pictorial warnings and plain, non-branded packaging.
The second stage of the research, conducted through online surveys, assesses how familiar and unfamiliar branding – including plain packaging – affects young people's perceptions of tobacco brands and contributes to the likelihood of smoking initiation. It will also estimate how brand familiarity and pictorial warning label size affects brand choice, as well as other smoking behaviours.
Hoek's previous research has found that a familiar cigarette brand carrying a graphic health warning is still more attractive to people than a generic brand with a plain text warning. "That suggests that cigarette branding is sufficiently powerful to offset some of the negative connotations that graphic health warnings try to create," says Hoek.
The new research will estimate whether brand attractiveness can be reduced by taking branding elements out of packaging and increasing the size of graphic health warnings, and will explore the combined effects of these interventions.
"Given the scrutiny tobacco policy proposals receive and the opposition these provoke, evidence-based policy-making is essential in New Zealand and internationally. This research will provide the first population-level estimates of how plain packaging and pictorial warnings affect cognitive, affective and behavioural responses to tobacco and smoking among young adults, and Mäori and Pacific people in particular."
"The results will inform future tobacco control policy in New Zealand, particularly in relation to plain packaging and the optimal size of pictorial warning labels, and will be of international interest to other regulators examining the marketing potential of tobacco branding."
- Health Research Council of New Zealand