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CIGARETTES : Makers Aim at Special Niches to Boost Sales

September 15, 1985|DONNA K. H. WALTERS | Times Staff Writer

The sultry lady in a pink satin dress, her slender cigarette held almost indifferently, gently leans against a life-size green package of cigarettes. The suggestion "Dare to Be More" is whispered across the top of the page in print as thin and shapely as the leg that's bared by the pose.

The product is More Menthol, a 120-millimeter-long cigarette made by R. J. Reynolds. The ad is on the back cover of September's issue of Ebony, a nationally circulated magazine whose primary focus and audience are blacks. And, not surprising, the model is black.

As simple as it is, the advertisement speaks volumes about the cigarette industry today: Cigarette makers are tailoring their products to ever more carefully defined groups of smokers. Such as women--they like the longer, skinny cigarettes. Or blacks--they prefer mentholated cigarettes to regular flavor ones. The cigarette companies seem so certain of that last tidbit of marketing intelligence, in fact, that of the seven cigarette ads in the same issue of Ebony, six were for menthols.

The concerted effort to reach even the most particular smoker has grown more intense as cigarette sales have declined--at a rate averaging 1.5% a year since 1981. Advertising and promotion budgets have soared: In a report issued last July, the Federal Trade Commission estimated that the nation's six major companies spent $2.7 billion marketing cigarettes in 1983.

Becky Barfield, tobacco analyst for the New York securities firm of First Boston, said, "the overall 1% decline in cigarette consumption--anticipated to continue through the next five years--makes it important (for the companies) to maintain and gain market share. So, they'redeveloping strategies to discover new niches."

Those niches get more and more refined. Pitches are geared to women, sports enthusiasts, adventure seekers, discount shoppers and spendthrifts--smokers of every stripe, and now, color. Lately, the cigarette makers are focusing especially on blacks and Latinos, two groups in which cigarette smoking has either increased or at least remained flat in recent years. Beyond that, there can be a dozen varieties, extending one brand from one niche into an even smaller one.

In fact, there are 220 different "styles" of cigarettes on the market--all competing in an environment that has grown increasingly hostile.

The anti-smoking campaign that began two decades ago, with the first Surgeon General's warnings on cigarette packs and the prohibition on radio and television ads, has escalated. Now, a variety of harsher warnings must be printed on all packages and advertisements; legal and social pressure on the smoker has intensified as more municipalities and workplaces are regulating where smoking is permitted--if at all.

"There's not a single thing that we do--advertising, promotion, sampling--that we are not under fire for," said Thomas Keim, director of marketing communications for Philip Morris, the company that leads sales with a third of the U.S. cigarette market. "It's nothing but high hurdles.. . . It's an industry under fire. Those are just the conditions we have to operate under. It makes marketing cigarettes one of the most supremely difficult jobs today."

The cigarette makers, long noted for sophisticated lobbying and marketing strategies, seem to be hunkering down even further in defensive positions. Some analysts say that the diversification of the tobacco companies--facilitated by the sheer profit margins inherent in the cigarette business--has become even more vigorous as a growing number of product liability suits threaten their financial stability.

Even so, some critics contend that the vast expenditures by the cigarette makers overwhelm the opposition. Alan Blum, editor of the New York State Journal of Medicine, deplores the cigarette companies' sponsorship of sporting events and of ads that present smoking in peaceful, pastoral settings or enviably adventuresome activities.

In an editorial in the July issue of the journal--all devoted to smoking concerns--Blum wrote: "In spite of the belief that there is a powerful 'anti-smoking' effort, the fact remains that cigarette manufacturers control virtually all of the contemporary imagery and terminology of smoking and continue to be successful in staving off major legislative measures that will adversely affect profits."

Sales Declined

There are signs, though, that the anti-smoking campaign is making inroads. After years of steady, if slight, decline in per-capita consumption, total sales of cigarettes fell in 1982, the first since 1969, according to the FTC. In 1982, 634 billion cigarettes were sold, down from from the 640 billion it said were sold in 1981, according to Agriculture Department figures.

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