For many, an alleged plot by M&C Saatchi to smear a government minister, has offered a tantalising glimpse into the sleazy underbelly of advertising.
The document, produced for tobacco giant Gallaher in 1998, seemed to live up to every stereotype of unscrupulous ad men, cooking up sinister plots behind closed doors.
It advises Gallaher to “undermine” then Health Minister Tessa Jowell by labelling her “undemocratic and rash” and to target other antismoking supporters, including Richard Branson.
In reality, the report was little more than the half-formed product of a brainstorming session and was never passed on to the client.
M&C joint chief executive Moray Maclennan told a newspaper it was produced by “relatively junior people” and rejected by senior executives.
The affair, which was splashed across a Sunday newspaper, is one of a string of potentially embarrassing revelations to hit the tobacco industry in recent weeks.
The surprising aspect, for some observers, is that it should come from a leading ad agency – even one with a reputation for hard-hitting political ads, such as the “demon eyes” Conservative poster from the last election.
Former lobbyist Derek Draper, who is a partner of agency Farm, comments: “This plan has all the hallmarks of an old style, dirty tricks campaign by a political lobbyist. But I was surprised M&C, an advertising agency, was involved. That kind of personality-based dirty work is very difficult to pull off properly. It is in danger of backfiring and not just because it might leak as a document.
“For a company to get its press people to criticise an individual minister is a much bigger story for most newspapers than branding a particular minister a ‘nanny stater’, which everybody knows anyway.
“In my experience, it doesn’t happen very often – if at all. It is probably a symptom of how desperate the tobacco companies are.”
Most attempts to discredit individuals or corporate rivals never make it off the drawing board, mainly because they have a habit of backfiring. PR people and ad agency chiefs tend to head for the moral high ground when the subject comes up.
Oliver Wheeler, head of corporate communications at PR agency Freud Communications, comments: “I would not permit a smear campaign to be put in place by anyone at this agency.
“It is our job to fanfare the best things about our clients. You don’t win friends by operating a dirty tricks campaign. Corporate integrity is all-important.”
However, the prospect of long-forgotten documents being dredged up by a crusading journalist or government committee could be a worrying one for some in the industry.
One agency chief says: “Traditionally, in agency brainstorming sessions, there is no such thing as a bad idea. Nothing is ruled out. So this kind of thing (smear campaigns) comes up occasionally, when you are working through the options. The notes of the meeting are usually typed up, but not everything is passed on to the client.
“In any case, smear tactics never work. The best tactic is to target the issues, not the people.”
The most famous corporate smear campaign of recent years, British Airways’ covert war on its upstart rival Virgin Airlines, is a warning of what can go wrong when a company decides to fight dirty.
The saga began with attempts to plant negative stories in the press about Virgin’s financial performance and escalated into a full scale dirty tricks campaign, which was eventually replayed in the libel courts.
The settlement cost BA about $5m (&£3m) and Virgin followed it with a $1bn (&£625m) anti-trust suit in the US, which was dismissed last year.
Worse, from BA’s point of view, the win was a PR triumph for the fledgling airline and, seven years on, is still slyly referred to in Virgin’s ad campaigns.
Martin Gregory, the author of Dirty Tricks, an account of the BA-Virgin libel battle, says: “It would be naive to say that the case spelled the end of dirty tricks campaigns.
“But people had to be pretty careful after it because they saw what it did to the board members of BA, who, it could be argued, came pretty close to losing their jobs. I would imagine those in similar positions, doing similar things will have had second thoughts.”
Virgin corporate affairs director Will Whitehorn adds: “Nobody who indulges in this kind of behaviour ever gets away with it. They are always found out.”
It could be argued that corporate rivals and public figures are fair game when it comes to attacks in the media. The real problem, for the big multinationals, is when a group of private individuals sets out to destroy a company’s reputation.
The rise of the Single Issue Fanatic, or SIF, has been a feature of corporate life in recent years, as public concern grows over the environment and animal welfare.
For the company under attack, single issue campaigners are difficult to deal with, even when they have been snared in long and costly legal proceedings.
The so-called McLibel trial cost fast-food giant McDonald’s &£10m in legal costs, and a lot more in negative publicity.
Although they lost their case, the defendants, the so-called McLibel two, succeeded in rallying overwhelming public support for their David and Goliath battle.
Apart from releasing a leaflet on the eve of the trial, entitled “Why we are going to court”, Dave Morris, one of the McLibel Two, believes McDonald’s resisted the temptation to smear the campaigners and, outside the courtroom at least, fought a fair fight.
“I think there is a lesson for other campaigners about the importance of public support,” he says. “The reason why dirty tactics don’t occur more often is that the public doesn’t like bullying.”
The McLibel trial was sparked by a leafleting campaign carried out by London Greenpeace, which accused McDonald’s of felling rainforests, producing unhealthy food and being cruel to animals.
But these past smear campaigns are likely to pale into insignificance with the exponential growth of the Internet. The Net, which offers anonymity and global reach, is now the favourite medium for anticorporate vitriol.
The US, in particular, has witnessed the rise of “hate sites”. There are few big corporations which do not have a small band of campaigners dedicated to bringing them down, and not just in controversial areas such as oil or tobacco.
Campaign rallying calls and malicious rumours are traded in obscure chat rooms and private circulation newsletters.
Sandra Macleod, chief executive of media tracking company Echo, which monitors anticorporate sites on behalf of clients, believes some companies have tried, with varying degrees of success, to infiltrate this closed world. “I have heard of companies trying to get in to forums and chat rooms. They need to know what some of these private newsletter groups are saying.
“Some corporations have even set up their own dedicated server and discussion groups, which are covert because they are not obviously connected to the company, to monitor what is going on.
“It is important for them to know what information – or misinformation – is being spread.”
Some companies have even resorted to infiltrating closed-circulation newsletters, using private, rather than corporate, addresses to get hold of the names and addresses of others on the list.
But despite this drastic action, it seems the smear campaign, which has a long and dishonourable history, is likely to be around for many years to come.