Between the Lines

Between the Lines

The company formerly known as Philip Morris wants to talk about risk.

So, let's talk.

This ad from "Altria" Corporation

recently appeared in major magazines.

We think it needs a little explanation.

Why just tell us her first name? That's what emcees do when the woman is there for appearances, not real communication. It's what happens with game show contestants ("let's welcome Jeff, from Houston"), or fashion models ("now we have Niki on the runway"), not with people who have something serious to say. We wonder what Doreen would have to say about the risks of allowing smoking in the workplace, but we're not going to find out. If she were a doctor placed on the page to comment on the risks of domestic violence, we doubt that she would be identified just as "Doreen."

Pure abstraction: The new logo reinforces the corporate strategy of starting fresh with no psychological baggage. If there's any connotation at all, it's with modern art-as far as possible from the ugly realities of cigarettes and lung cancer. With its black, red, green, yellow, and blue squares, the logo recalls Piet Mondrian's "Composition A"-a painting one might find in an air-conditioned museum, not in a smoke-filled bar.

False mustache and wig? Altria is a new name for an old company-the one formerly called Philip Morris, which is now reduced to fine print. "Altria" isn't a dictionary word, but a made-up name that gives the company a fresh start in the public mind. Given the nature of this ad, we suspect that the company not only wanted to assume a new identity to escape association with the death toll of the cigarettes it continues to sell, but also hoped to capitalize on subconscious associations with "altruism," which is in the dictionary, defined as "an unselfish concern for the welfare of others."

You can't injure your lungs? Pointing to "safety" keeps the focus on a definition of injury that neatly excludes disease. A thoughtful reader might wonder, does Altria think safety is important but protection from disease is not?

Do as we say, not as we do: The admonition to "your company" implies that in buying this ad, Altria is providing leadership in social responsibility, when in fact its own performance has been one of the most irresponsible of all the companies in the world.

Do the math: If you add medical expenses to the productivity losses, the total losses from smoking rise to $150 billion-nearly 50 times the losses from domestic violence. That's not to diminish the importance of eliminating domestic violence, but where's Altria's recognition of a workplace danger that's 50 times larger?

False. Data compiled by the National Center for Health Statistics show that "injuries purposely inflicted by spouse or other intimate" rank 9th among causes of injuries to women-accounting for slightly over 2 percent of all injuries. Motor vehicle accidents and accidental falls account for nearly 20 times as many injuries as domestic violence.

Yes, that's bad, but... since the advertiser is one of the world's largest producers of cigarettes, we might also ask what does smoking cost businesses? A study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta (CDC), published in 2002, found that productivity losses from smoking cigarettes were over $81 billion per year. The ad neatly deflects attention from the fact that Altria's share of the smoking damage alone causes about 10 times as much loss to the economy as domestic violence does.