Cigarette marketing may need a new outlet after ban

Agencies that once used sponsorship of events to promote cigarette brands are re-evaluating and looking at other methods.

Until last year, a fan in the stands at the Dubai Tennis Championships would probably have noticed that one of the event's sponsors was a cigarette company. Flags and posters promoted the Korean brands Pine and Esse at the blockbuster sports event at Dubai Tennis Stadium. The company that distributes the cigarettes in the region had a three-year sponsorship contract with the event.

"When we were promoting the tennis, all of our flags and posters said Pine-Esse," said Yuliya Lipskaya, who heads the marketing department for the Dubai office of the Alokozay Group of Companies. "We were promoting two brands." The sponsorship contract ended last year and the company did not renew "because we were participating in some other events", she said. "There is no special reason." The company had considered restarting its sponsorship, but that plan has been disrupted by a smoking ban announced Wednesday that included "a ban on all kinds of advertisements, promotion and sponsorship of tobacco products."

While tobacco companies rarely engage any more in traditional advertising mediums like television, even in markets where there have not been explicit bans, promotion and sponsorship have been important ways to market their products. As a result, the ban is being scrutinised by the members of the local advertising and marketing industry to see what effect it will have on their business. Jamie Cunningham, the managing director of the Professional Sports Group, which organised the recent Arabian Sponsorship Forum, believes the effect locally will be minimal.

"People have been respecting the fact that in the Arabian Gulf, sponsorships involving tobacco and alcohol is not a great thing," he said. "The rights holders who have come here with sponsors with them, on the whole, understand this, and on the whole there is less and less sponsorship from tobacco anyway. "So I don't think that this has a massive effect on sponsorship in the Middle East." For example, Marlboro, one of the last visible brands in the once heavily tobacco-supported world of Formula One racing, chose not to display its logo on the car of the Ferrari team during the Bahrain F1 race in 2008, despite it not being explicitly illegal.

The logo was not visible on the Ferrari team's cars during the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, either. Instead, tobacco companies over the years have shifted towards less visible forms of marketing, primarily using in-store displays and events. These are the two primary areas of communications services that the ad agency Leo Burnett Dubai has been providing for its client Philip Morris, according to Kamal Dimachkie, the company's managing director for the region.

But he does not believe that the new legislation will greatly affect the company's activities, since Philip Morris has strong internal regulations that require it to notify people about the health risks of smoking and do all it can to keep cigarettes from children. "Obviously, tobacco companies have in recent years come under significant pressure, both internationally and, increasingly, locally," he said, "and they have taken the necessary measures to shield themselves and reduce the exposure."

For example, advertising on pan-Arab satellite television is allowed, but Philip Morris's internal rules prevent it from doing so, he said. What is still unclear is how the ban will affect events and promotions, today the bulk of tobacco marketing. "What is the definition of promotion?" Mr Cunningham said. "In theory, this could be giving ashtrays away at bars. That has a far greater effect on the tobacco industry than sponsorship."

Indeed, that is the majority of Alokozay's marketing work for its cigarette brands, according to Ms Lipskaya. The company sponsors events at clubs like 360 in Dubai, and gives away samples to revellers. It remains to be seen what level of creativity will be required in order to comply with the new regulations. "Whatever the law says, we will act in compliance with it, and we will support it," Mr Dimachkie said.

"But history suggests that for as long as you do not have a total clampdown, for as long as you have not made this category illegal, within the letter and spirit of the law there will always be room for communication."