They are disappearing like puffs of smoke into the air. Hundreds of billboards for Salem cigarettes have been removed from urban markets this month by R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. The unanswered question is, why?
R. J. Reynolds says it is a marketing decision. But Father Michael Pfleger, an activist from the south side of Chicago, says it was the pressure that his group has placed on R. J. Reynolds that led to the company's decision to quietly remove the billboards.
"We don't care what they say; we just care what they do," said Pfleger, pastor at the Community of St. Sabina Church. "The tobacco industry has an unwritten law never to admit submitting to public opinion on anything because that would be the death of the industry."
Regardless of why R. J. Reynolds made the move, some view it as one of a growing number of concessions tobacco and alcoholic beverage giants are making to activist groups. Some liquor companies will no longer advertise on urban Chicago billboards for fear of angering activists. And several products to be targeted toward blacks--Uptown cigarettes and PowerMaster malt liquor--were never introduced after protests were raised about their marketing tactics.
But officials at R. J. Reynolds insist that the Salem cigarette billboards that have recently been removed from Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and other cities have nothing to do with Pfleger's protests.
"The changes are not due to Father Pfleger's concerns," said Maura Payne, a spokeswoman for R. J. Reynolds. "They are a reflection of our marketing plans." Billboards, she said, "will remain a very important medium for us." In fact, she said, a new campaign for Winston cigarettes may eventually replace some of the Salem billboards.
If that happens, said Pfleger, "they will become a target of even greater protest."
One company that is familiar with Pfleger's protest tactics is Gateway Outdoor Advertising, the Chicago billboard firm that says more than 300 of its billboards have been defaced by Pfleger and his supporters.
"The billboards have been in the neighborhood for 37 years," said Lynn Borrow, executive vice president at Gateway. "Billboards are legal structures, and we only advertise legal products." He said several liquor advertisers will no longer advertise in urban Chicago for fear of bad public relations.
Last month, Pfleger was acquited by a Chicago jury on criminal charges of painting over Gateway's liquor and tobacco billboards in the mostly black neighborhood near his church. The defense persuaded the jury that Pfleger's actions were taken to protect black youths who might be influenced by the ads.
"I can't just walk away from liquor and tobacco advertising," said Borrow, whose company placed many of the R. J. Reynolds billboards in Chicago. "They do pay a portion of my bills."
Some R. J. Reynolds billboards were also removed from the Los Angeles market. But the local leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference said billboard ads for liquor and tobacco products that target blacks are not the most pressing issue here.
"We can educate people to disregard these billboards," said Genetia Hayes, interim executive director of the group. "The more pressing problem in Los Angeles' urban areas is the high number of liquor stores where people can go in and buy alcohol and cigarettes."
The Impact of Activists
In recent months, activists have begun to play a greater role in influencing the marketing decisions of the giant tobacco and alcoholic beverage firms. Community activists seem to be winning court decisions and even forcing companies to listen to--and act upon--their gripes. Here are some examples:
* BILLBOARDS YANKED: R. J. Reynolds said its decision to pull hundreds of Salem billboards in half a dozen urban areas this month was a business decision, but community activists say they forced the company's hand.
* STRATEGIES RECONSIDERED: Ads for several liquor brands have recently been pulled from billboards in urban areas of Chicago. The agencies that place the ads say they fear the billboards will be painted over by angry activists--and damage the image of the advertiser.
* ACTIVIST ACQUITTED: Father Michael Pfleger was acquitted in July by a Chicago jury that found him not guilty on criminal charges of damaging billboards that contained tobacco and alcohol ads. Pfleger admitted defacing the signs near his church, but said he acted to keep black youths from being influenced by the ads. The jury agreed with him.
* POWERMASTER DUMPED: Following protests by community activists and displeasure from federal authorities, G. Heileman Brewing Co. killed plans in July to introduce PowerMaster, a high-alcohol malt liquor that was to be targeted toward blacks.
* UPTOWN DROPPED: Shortly after word leaked last year that R .J. Reynolds planned to market a new brand of cigarettes called Uptown to blacks, national protests followed and the brand was never introduced.