Women of the world unite: a sinister patriarchal plot is out to get us. Evil tobacco companies are conspiring to seduce us by wrapping up ‘our poison’ in shades of ‘pale or pastel colours’. There is concern in public health circles that the dark arts of design, armed with images denoting ‘femininity, style, sophistication and attractiveness’, will result in us losing our pretty little heads. Or so says Cancer Research UK, keen to save us from our womenly weakness, with their latest research report published yesterday. Cancer Research UK are outraged that ‘research shows’ Big Tobacco is packaging brands of cigarettes specifically to appeal to women.
I am not sure which part of this argument is most insulting. On the one hand, this is a gendered version of the patronising claim of the plain packaging warriors: that the only reason anyone smokes is because of the displays of well-designed brands behind supermarket tills. This ‘monkey see, monkey do’ argument suggests all smokers are merely hapless dupes, incapable of resisting any temptation. But if that were true, how to explain those who resist? I know many a teenage boy, grown man (even feminist), exposed to the cleverest adverts and packaging for Dyson vacuum cleaners or Febreze fabric fresheners, who hasn’t mindlessly taken to the joys of housework. In truth, these brands are competing for the custom of those who already do the household chores. No one has yet embraced cleaning per se because of a particularly jazzy disinfectant bottle.
This proposition is even more condescending when it focuses on gender. According to the ‘research’ (well, more accurately focus groups with 24 girls in total), females are particularly gullible when faced with pretty packaging. Silk Cut and Vogue Superslims are indicted for packets that suggest ‘femininity and pleasure’. We females are a walkover by such ‘manipulation’ apparently. Come on girls — admit it: a mere glimpse of a purple sash of satin and we’re anyone’s. A campaign that wants to save women from the evils of Camel No. 9’s clever use of ‘pink foil’ is insidiously paternalistic. And outdated. If it was once outrageous to ask if Lady Chatterley’s Lover were the kind of book ‘you would wish your wife or servants to read?’ surely we should reject the anachronistic question, ‘is this the kind of cigarette packet you would wish young women to see?’
Of course it is true that tobacco companies will differentiate their brands from one another, and yes — some will try and appeal to female smokers. But is this a crime? The proposition that all consumer products should be gender-neutral is ludicrous. What next — a campaign to haul up all those who market lacy lingerie, lipstick, silk blouses? Is this a return to the days of flat brown shoes and dungarees? The world would hardly be a better place for women if the myriad colours and feminine designs on display in dress shops were given the plain packaging treatment. Anyone for sackcloth and ashes haute couture?
Of course, we women know that advertisers and designers are trying to sell us products; women aren’t naive dupes, incapable of resisting an image even if it is targeted at us. Whether young or mature, we women are sophisticated and discerning consumers, no more in need of the protection of healthy-living zealots to shield our eyes than we need gallant gentlemen to protect our honour.
It is particularly galling that the likes of the Cancer Research UK report appropriates the rhetoric of feminism. The World Health Organisation once accused tobacco companies of ‘exploiting women’s struggle for equal rights by creating the impression that tobacco makes women confident … more in control of their destiny’. What a cheek. It is the public health brigade who deny women the right to control our lives, by campaigns aimed at limiting our free choices by regimenting us all into dull, miserablist conformity. But women did not struggle long and hard to be treated as victimised airheads.
What lies at the heart of women’s liberation is FREEDOM. And yes — that means being free to choose pretty packets if we fancy and free to indulge in petty vices such as smoking if we choose. To ape the recent ‘gay bus’ advert furore: I’m a woman, I choose to smoke — get over it.