Think of the Children Younger Adults!

Euphemisms in the Industry's Marketing to Minors

Stephan Risi

Realistically, if our company is to survive and prosper, over the long term, we must get our share of the youth market.

Underage smokers are the lifeblood of the tobacco industry. Only one in five smokers starts to smoke after age 18 and only 5% start after they turn 21. Cheryl Perry. "The Tobacco Industry and Underage Youth Smoking: Tobacco Industry Documents from the Minnesota Litigation." Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine 153, no. 9 (1999): 935. As Myron Johnston of Philip Morris’ Research Department summarized in 1981: “Today’s teenager is tomorrow’s potential regular customer.” Myron Johnston. "Young Smokers. Pervalence, Trends, Implications, and Related Geographic Trends." 31 March 1981. The teenage years were crucial, Johnston observed, because most smokers stuck with the brand that they had first picked up: “At least part of the success of Marlboro Red during its most rapid growth period was because it became the brand of choice among teenagers who then stuck with it as they grew older.”

Teenagers, then, are big business for the industry. There’s only one hitch: Technically, tobacco companies aren’t allowed to market to them. Throughout the 20th century, the minimum age to buy cigarettes in most states was 18 or 21. Dorie Apollonio and Stanton Glantz. "Minimum Ages of Legal Access for Tobacco in the United States from 1863 to 2015." American Journal of Public Health 106, no. 7 (2016): 1200-1207. Marketing to underage smokers essentially meant inciting those smokers to break the law. This, of course, was more of a technicality--after all, it would be the underage smoker and not the tobacco company breaking the law. More practically, tobacco companies had issued an advertising code of their own in 1964, which prohibited marketing to minors. Allan Brandt. The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined America. New York: Basic Books, 2007: 295-261. (The advertisement code was the industry’s attempt to forestall advertising regulations by the FTC--it was basically a way of trying to say: look how responsibly we can govern ourselves.)

This essay isn’t about the industry’s extensive youth marketing campaigns--the flavored starter cigarettes, concert sponsorship, the cartoonish, kid-friendly mascots like Joe Camel, the placing of cigarettes in movies and TV shows that children would watch. For an analysis of those campaigns, have a look at the articles by Perry, Ling, and Cummings cited here. Perry, "The Tobacco Industry and Underage Youth Smoking."
Pamela Ling, and Stanton Glantz. "Why and How the Tobacco Industry Sells Cigarettes to Young Adults: Evidence from Industry Documents." American Journal of Public Health 92, no. 6 (2002): 908-16.
K. Michael Cummings, CP Morley et. al. "Marketing to America's Youth: Evidence from Corporate Documents." Tobacco Control 11, no. suppl 1 (2002): i5-i17.

Rather, this essay is about all of the euphemisms that cigarette makers deployed to hide the fact, even in their own documents, that they were still marketing to minors. It is the story of how "teenagers" became "young adults," "YAMS," or "FUBYAS." But it is also the story of how the ever more cryptic euphemisms and abbreviations allow us to trace the industry's marketing to minors precisely because the terms they chose are so far removed from the average language that we use, meaning that we can trace their history across thousands of documents.

Lawyering Up: Welcome to the 1970s

There’s an obvious question: Why would the industry’s advertisers try to hide the fact that they were marketing to underage smokers even in their own internal documents? They certainly wouldn’t admit to this fact in public but none of the documents that we will survey were ever meant to become public. So why was there an extensive internal use of euphemisms?

The answer lies in the lawyering-up of the tobacco industry during the 1970s. There is not much published literature available on this process because many documents written by lawyers remain under attorney-client privilege, making the importance of the law firms representing tobacco companies hard to study. We do know, however, that the 1970s mark the ascendancy of the Committee of Counsel, a group consisting of the top lawyers from every tobacco company, which coordinated the industry's conspiracy. Robert Proctor is currently working on an article on this secretive committee. Rightfully worried about future lawsuits after the Surgeon General had found smoking to cause cancer and heart disease in 1964, lawyers wielded ever more power over the kind of research that could and could not be done in tobacco companies; over what executives could say in public; but also over what terms and expressions researchers could and couldn't use when writing a memo or a research report.

New Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, instituted in 1970, were a driving force of this change. David Hardy. "Letter from David R Hardy to Debaun Bryant Regarding Health Litigation." 21 July 1970. Under these rules, it became much easier for plaintiffs to obtain internal documents during trial preparation. The potential for document discovery meant that, for example, an honest internal appraisal of a youth marketing campaign by an RJ Reynolds marketer could come to haunt the company ten or twenty years later.

The tobacco industry’s reaction to these rule changes, of course, wasn’t to stop marketing to minors. Rather, they just changed the terminology they used.

Right as the new civil procedure rules went into effect in 1970, we can observe that the term “teenagers” was replaced with “young adults” in internal communication and marketing documents. “Young adult” is a wonderfully vague term that can designate the same age group as teenagers, ca. ages 13-20. (Think for example of “young adult fiction,” which targets this age group.) However, if you’re a tobacco marketer, you can always claim that you are talking about adults: "See, it’s right there in the name: young adult."

Some industry lawyers quickly became enamored with the term. In 1975, Brown & Williamson's R.A. Pittman sent a memo to all department heads, asking them to use the term in their memos and reports:

From time to time when describing market categories and target audiences we use references such as "young smokers," "young market," "youth market." etc.

These terms do not accurately describe what we are talking about. In the future when describing the low-age end of the cigarette business please use the term "young adult smoker" or "young adult smoking market."

Please advise all members of your department that these terms should be used in all written material.

However, if we look at the usage of the terms Pittman mentioned in Brown & Williamson's internal communication and marketing documents, we can see that the success of his policy was limited at best.

While the memo helped to popularize the term “young adult smokers at Brown & Williamson, the more incriminating “young smokers” remained in use almost as much.

The failure of B&W’s policy is representative of the slow and partial adoption of new linguistic rules across the industry during the 1980s. K. Michael Cummings et. al. found documents explicitly discussing 14-17 year old smokers in the documents of all major tobacco companies. K. Michael Cummings, CP Morley, et. al. "Marketing to America's Youth: Evidence from Corporate Documents." Tobacco Control 11, no. suppl 1 (2002): i8. At RJ Reynolds, for example, Jim Hind argued that for Camel filter cigarettes to succeed, “the brand must increase its share penetration among the 14-24 age group which have a new set of more liberal values and which represent tomorrow’s cigarette business.” Jim Hind. "Re: Recommendation to Expand Meet the Turk Ad Campaign." January 23 1975. Researchers at Philip Morris, in the meantime, had hard data that it was already succeeding in this age group. Tasked with evaluating the success of Marlboro Red, Myron Johnston was proud to announce that unlike most other studies, his dataset included "younger teenagers" and showed "even higher Marlboro market penetration among 15-17 year-olds [when compared to 18 year olds." Myron Johnston. "Subject: The Decline in the Rate of Growth of Marlboro Red." 21 May 1975.

From Young to Younger Adults

It was only in the 1980s as tobacco litigation heated up with the Cipollone trial (the first cancer related case that any tobacco company lost in the United States) that the tobacco companies instituted more stringent policies.

RJ Reynolds took the lead in this regard. In 1981, the company adopted a new term: “Younger adult smokers.” L.W. Hall laid out the reasoning. “[I]t is not our business to motivate people to start smoking, particularly minors." L.W. Hall. "Younger Adult Smokers Terminology." September 11 1980. Hence, it was important not leave “the false impression that our real intentions are otherwise. The risk area here is in the references we make in our written communications regarding the younger adult smoker market.” Consequently, he asked that this new term be exclusively used.

In difference to Brown & Williamson’s 1975 policy, RJ Reynold’s policy immediately showed effects. Not only do “young smokers” and “young adult smokers” all but vanish after 1980, Reynolds researchers went quite far to purge underage smokers from its records. Reynolds regularly sent surveys to 100,000 Americans on their smoking behavior. Some of those surveys were filled out by under 18 year olds. However, starting in 1981, all of those underage smokers were aged to 18 and classified as “continuing smokers.” L.M. Barnes. "Aging 18 Year Old Smokers into NFO Panel Data." December 8 1981. Under 18 year olds could no longer be entered into the system. In other words, Reynolds set up its system so that it could both gather data on underage smokers and eliminate traces that they did so.

Reynolds chosen term--“younger adult smokers”--is of course quite peculiar: If “young adults” are barely (if at all) adults, it begs the question what “younger adults” could be. But Reynolds’ word-smiths weren’t done. Their next creation were the FUBYAS: “First usual brand younger adult smoker.” Taylor Shain. "Presentation to more Cigarettes." 5 October 1983.

FUBYAS are beginning smokers about to settle on their brand of cigarettes. Because smokers generally remain loyal to a brand, this group had particularly high value to the industry’s marketer. Targeting them, however, was of course ethically murky territory: Most smokers not only begin smoking before age 18 but also settle on a brand by then. Hence, marketing to beginning smokers required a chaining together of words that don’t really make sense (what is a “first time usual brand smoker?” anyway) and then hiding it behind an acronym--FUBYAS.

1988 Camel Lights Advertisement. The FTC alleged that the Joe Camel advertising campaign indeed violated federal law by appealing to children and adolescents under 18. “Joe Camel Advertising Campaign Violates Federal Law, FTC Says.” May 28 1997. A 1984 Reynolds document that sought to better understand “FUBYAS” became an important piece of evidence in the FTC’s case. In other words, the lawyers’ worries that internal documents might become available during litigation or investigations proved true. The idea that simply using euphemisms might be enough to conceal Reynolds’ marketing to minors did not. However, the FTC ultimately abandoned the case in 1999, arguing that the Master Settlement Agreement from the preceding year had already addressed the FTC’s concerns. “Federal Trade Commission Dismisses Joe Camel Complaint.” January 27 1999. Namely, Reynolds was already barred from using Joe Camel in future advertisements.

YAMS and Replacement Smokers

After spending so much time talking about Reynolds, I would be remiss not talk about a few euphemisms deployed by other companies to round things off. In the 1990s, “yams” crop up over and over in Philip Morris documents. The term is of course not an indication that Philip Morris researchers had suddenly discovered a new way of turning vegetables into exotic additives but rather rather shows their effort to hide marketing to “young adult male smokers” or “YAMS.” (“YAFS,” it seems, never took of in the same way.)

One of the most recent euphemisms to take on a life of its own is “replacement smokers.” “Replacement smokers” are those smokers to make up for those who quit and those who died. The term first appeared in a 1977 Lorillard document. In that document, J.G. Flinn worried that fewer children overall (think: the pill) also meant “fewer replacement smokers are available today.” J. G. Flinn. “HEW Studies.” 9 June 1977. But the term “replacement smokers” wasn’t limited to Lorillard. It also appeared, for example, in a 1984 Reynolds analysis, which noted that “Younger adult smokers are virtually the only source of replacement smokers. Only 31% of smokers start after age 18.” “Cigarette Market Overview.” 1984, p. 52. Still, the term remained rare--from 1977 to 1998, it only appeared 236 times in the internal communication and marketing documents of all major tobacco companies.

What makes “replacement smokers” important is the life that the term developed in news reports and in the courtroom.

The particular cynicism of the term “replacement smokers” (who thinks of new customers as replacements for those who died?) struck a chord.. The first internal documents mentioning “replacement smokers” became public when Reynolds’ Canadian subsidiary filed a challenge to a 1988 Canadian law that forbade most forms of cigarette advertisements. From there it became a widely used term to indict the tobacco industry’s practices.

From law makers...

Susan Cohen. “Joe Camel Wants You. Tobacco, Teens and Advertising.” Washington Post Magazine, 20 February 1994, p. 9. lawyers suing the industry...

"Closing Arguments by Gustafson, Paige, Williams and Ware in Duignan." 9 September 2015. anti-smoking campaigns, the term "replacement smokers" became a key word for anti-tobacco activists.

Enough With the Puff. "Puppets of Propaganda."

Among the many euphemisms that we surveyed in this essay, “replacement smokers” is unusual in that it was and remains more popular among anti-tobacco activists than it ever was among tobacco marketers. However, it is similar to the other euphemisms and abbreviations in that, today, they have become markets of precisely what they were meant to hide: the industry’s sustained targeting of minors.

We will probably never know what industry marketers call minors today. After having many of their internal papers exposed, we can be all but certain that the cigarette makers today assiduously shred their notes (if they exist in written form in the first place). What’s left are the many historical euphemisms that tobacco companies invented in the past. All of them, from “young adult smokers” to “FUBYAS” were invented to hide the industry’s real goals. And yet, it is precisely because they are such unusual, made-up terms that these euphemisms have become our most direct gateway to identifying the industry’s most revealing youth marketing documents.