Since the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) severely restricted under-18 directed tobacco advertising, the major tobacco companies have increasingly targeted young adults1–4
who represent an important market for tobacco companies and also set trends for adolescents. The small segment of the population who serve as ‘innovators’ and ‘early adopters’ of new trends influence consumer trends for the rest of society.3,5–7
‘Hipsters’, or young trendsetters, are charismatic, approximately aged 18–35, and ‘possess tastes, social attitudes and opinions deemed cool by the cool’.8
Influential on mass media and, hence, adolescents and young adults,7,9–13
hipsters represent an important tobacco industry target with the power to drive trends.14,15
Hipsters, with a heterogeneous and amorphous yet particular lifestyle, are particularly valuable for tobacco industry marketing because they encompass diverse in-crowd subcultures, serving as a cultural clearing house for popular and marginalised youth subcultures. The purpose of this paper is to explore why and how one tobacco company, RJ Reynolds (RJR), sought to understand and expropriate the hipster aesthetic to promote cigarettes.
Hipsters are well recognised in marketing and public health literature.5,10,16–19
The 2008 National Cancer Institute Tobacco Control Monograph, The Role of the Media in Promoting and Reducing Tobacco Use
noted that ‘smoking ‘hipsters’ are recruited clandestinely (from the bar and nightclub scene) to surreptitiously sell tobacco products to unsuspecting young adults in bars and elsewhere’. Martin and Kamins20
examined the effects on potential and current smokers when the consequences of smoking (ie, death) are made explicit. They used terror management theory to examine the psychological defences smokers use to ignore the real risks of smoking, concluding that anti-smoking adverts focusing on the health consequences of smoking may have the ‘forbidden fruit’ effect and stimulate college-aged smokers to identify more strongly with their smoking.20
Hipsters are undeterred by the physical risk of death that smoking poses. This nihilistic attitude leads researchers to conclude that physical threats do not motivate behaviour, but social threats do.9,10,21,22
Social disapproval countermarketing effectively conveys risk to young adults. Social acceptability functions as a replacement for fear of death among young adults.22
Rose et al23
described typologies and psychosocial profiles of smokers to tailor public health interventions to effectively access and influence the behaviour of these groups. As tobacco industry marketing capitalises on the nihilistic beliefs of hipsters by discrediting the value of life-span and health in favour of intensity of experience, so public health social marketing can provide an antidote by raising the question of the ‘social mortality’ smoking represents.
In the 1970s, RJR was losing market share to Philip Morris. Noticing future market share growth depended on capturing the youth market, by 1987 RJR had branded Camel with the ‘hipster’ Joe Camel character, with youth as the primary target.24,25
While in 1988 Camel had only 0.5% of the under–18 cigarette market;26
by 1991, 32.8% of adolescent and teenage smokers smoked Camels, contributing to a $476 million increase in sales.26
Retiring Joe Camel in 1997 as a result of litigation alleging that the campaign was targeted at teenagers,27
RJR continued targeting young adult hipsters by developing a network of adult venue promotions, starting with its 1994 ‘Camel Club’ marketing program designed to influence trendsetters to smoke Camels.2,3,14,28,29
RJR viewed hipsters as an opportunity to refocus the Camel brand, regain market share from Philip Morris, raise the status of smokers and make smoking a more ‘aspirational’ activity.14,30
RJR’s goal was not merely for hipsters to smoke Camels, but rather to expropriate the hipster image and use it to appeal to mainstream consumers. The significant resources and research Camel invested designing its products and advertising campaigns using hipster culture to craft the Camel persona to sell cigarettes can help public health advocates to redirect the same consumer audience against smoking.