The Business Behind Addictions: a Talk by Professor Alessandro Signorini

Tobacco is universally accepted as being harmful to its consumers. Alcohol consumption is illegal under the age of 21 in the United States and it is common knowledge that excessive drinking causes irreversible health problems. Yet, tobacco and alcohol industries are still the most profitable in the world.

Alessandro Signorini

Professor Signorini

Marketing professor Alessandro Signorini gave a presentation on the hidden marketing strategies of the tobacco and alcohol industries on February 19 as part of the “Prof Talks series,” organized by JCU Student Government and Marketing Club. Professor Signorini started off by talking about tobacco and how it causes exponential damage to one’s health. Specifically, tobacco can be connected to 21% of existing cancer. Nonetheless, the main objective of the tobacco industry today is to convince kids between the age of 13 and 19 to start smoking. “The earlier the better” is their motto. An obstacle that the tobacco industry had to overcome is the fact that cigarette advertising is banned at every level in most countries.

Alcohol is another common addiction. While moderate drinking is not considered harmful, the problem arises when one begins to drink excessively. Studies have shown that those who assume too much alcohol between the age of 13 and 23 are more likely to become alcoholics as adults. Unlike tobacco, alcohol advertising is legal, even though public sensitivity toward the issue is increasing.

At the industrial level, the tobacco and alcohol lobbies are good friends who often meet to discuss “Gray Marketing,” a hidden strategy that the consumer will never see directly. For example, an estimate made by Truth Initiative, a public health organization in the United States, shows that from the 1930s to now the tobacco industry has invested 600 to 900 billion dollars in promotion, product placement, and in the film industry to defend its interests. Also, Philip Morris, aware of the fact that cigarette consumption causes serious health problems, has decided to invest in the health care of its own customers.

Professor Signori then explained “The Werther Effect,” which is the imitation process that is automatically triggered within all of us and consists in imitating a group of people in order to become part of it. Teenagers often start smoking and drinking because of the imitation process. Of course, their behavior depends on their core values and personalities; still, the Werther Effect affects a significant part of the population.

The hidden marketing solution that the tobacco and alcohol giants have found to attract teenagers relies on the Werther Effect. Those industries embedded their harmful products in music, TV shows, and movies because they know that teenagers will imitate the celebrities they see on television. Therefore, tobacco and alcohol industries are the first promoters of movies, TV shows, and music. Research has shown that the American tobacco industry has been the main sponsor and promoter of Hollywood through aggressive product placement. Also, Netflix shows featured a total of 319 scenes in which tobacco products are consumed, and 285 scenes featuring “alcohol incidents.” For example, the famous Netflix show Stranger Things counts 182 scenes featuring cigarettes, Orange is the New Black 45, and House of Cards 41.

Signorini concluded his discussion with a possible solution to the problem. He claimed that Netflix and other film distributors should include a disclaimer at the beginning of each film and television show to inform viewers of the presence of alcohol and tobacco within the television program. viewers could therefore choose whether or not to watch a movie featuring cigarettes and alcohol. Only by having this choice we will be free consumers, and we’ll be able to stop those industries from brainwashing us every day in such a subtle way, Signorini concluded.

Professor Signorini has been working as Assistant Professor of Marketing at JCU since September 2008 and he was confirmed as tenured professor in 2012. Since 2005, Prof. Signorini has cooperated in fundraising projects for a number of non-profit organizations, primarily Bioversity International, the World Food Programme, Oxfam, and Ashoka, Prof. Signorini completed his PhD. in Marketing in the University of Strathclyde on strategic alliances and acquisitions in the airline industry in 2012.