Interesting though the Customs & Excise advertising brief may be for JWT Manchester creatives, it is misguided in its intention. Marketing initiatives which lack the apparatus to succeed invite contempt and, when they are sufficiently high profile, bring the whole industry into disrepute.
This is one of those occasions. Details of the campaign remain vague, but we are invited to believe that some carefully stage-managed ads, appearing on radio, posters and in pubs, will play an important part in combating the vibrant 1.5bn cross-channel trade in contraband tobacco and alcoholic drink.
It will do this by encouraging the public to inform on their acquaintances, possibly for a reward.
This ethically dubious route has been used before – by the DSS on benefit claimant racketeers – without notable success. There is no reason to suppose it will be any more effective on this occasion.
To begin with, support within the very constituency it is relying on for success is at best lukewarm. Brewers and tobacco manufacturers publicly applaud any effort by the authorities to combat smuggling. Privately, they are dismissive of the initiative. ‘It’s the equivalent of putting a finger in the dyke,’ is a typical response – in this case from a Bass spokesman.
It’s easy to understand their frustration. To many people, smuggling booze and fags seems a victimless crime, little different on the moral scale from (perfectly legal) grey imports of cars or the only slightly more contentious presence of Levi’s in Tesco. But smuggling does have a subtlely corrosive effect on the economy in general and brands in particular. Manufacturers of smuggled goods are not necessarily concerned with the impact on their margins. On the contrary, a consignment of, say, Stella Artois reimported into the UK probably commands about the same wholesale price as it would in the home market. The financial loss is all the Treasury’s, in unpaid duty.
The damage for manufacturers is in other areas. For example, in the loss of control over distribution and retail outlets which help to condition the brand environment. Not to mention the tricky issue of perceived price point.
To be fair, this message, or something approximating to it, may well be conveyed in the forthcoming ad campaign. But the impact will be muted as long as the Government refuses to tackle the root issue behind smuggling.
And that is the huge disparity between duty paid on alcohol and tobacco in the UK and the rest of the Union, particularly France, where the levy is about one-seventh of what the Chancellor hoovers up over here. Ironic, really, the Government’s intransigence on this issue, given its willingness to intervene in the car grey market. But the difference in this case is that public rather than corporate money is at stake.