Design Matters: DEATH cigarettes icon of rebellion

The following column examines and critiques commercial design, as well as provides commentary on current issues and trends in the design industry.Imagine a brand of butter called fat.Or a razor blade called slash. How about a laxative called dump?Greenaway stillsIf those...

The following column examines and critiques commercial design, as well as provides commentary on current issues and trends in the design industry.

Imagine a brand of butter called fat.

Or a razor blade called slash. How about a laxative called dump?

Greenaway stills

If those who call for truth in advertising had their way, products might bear such painfully honest branding, and package designs might look a lot more like stills from a Peter Greenaway film.

But, of course, advertising and package design are much more about fantasy, dream and desire than they are about base honesty.

Neither discipline would ever be as brutally frank as our opener would suggest.

Unless you practice those disciplines the way BJ Cunningham does.

Enlightened Tobacco Co.

BJ Cunningham is president of England’s Enlightened Tobacco Company, sole manufacturer of death cigarettes.

A survivor of two collapsed lungs, and still an inveterate three-pack-a-day man, the 29-year-old Cunningham believes the success of his venture depends upon brutal honesty.

In a currently running print ad, death chastises its competitors for not being honest with consumers, and attempts to appeal to the intelligence of its audience by openly admitting that smoking is a cause of lung cancer, emphysema and heart disease.

It even goes one further by donating 10% of its pre-tax profits to cancer charities.

But the coup de grace is most definitely the package design, which makes plain use of the skull and crossbones as its visual trademark.

What appears as a lethal warning on the back of most other packages is here proudly brandished as an emblem of truth and honesty.

And this, bj says, is what sells his cigarettes.

Typical user

When asked to profile a typical death smoker, Cunningham’s answer is ’25 to 35 years old, intelligent, aware, somebody who approves of a cigarette company that tells the truth and donates money to cancer; somebody who enjoys our image, the skull and crossbones.’

Reading this, one suspects that it is not truth that is selling these cigarettes, but a romantic fascination with death. It is a manifestation of the same bohemian spirit that made absynthe lethally famous in the last century.

Rejection of bourgeois values

As smoking becomes less of a mainstream activity, death cigarettes represent a rejection of bourgeois values.

As such, death’s advertising and packaging are no more innovative or truthful than anyone else’s; they are simply the icons of a rebellious lifestyle. And with a .42% share of the British cigarette market, they are destined to remain that way.

But bj has his sights set on higher moral ground, for he sees himself as a soldier in the war against prohibition and censorship.

He calls the anti-smoking lobby the ‘health fascists,’ and further demonstrates his defiance of their agenda by driving around London without his seat belt on.

One has to wonder what a guy like this could do for the plain packaging debate in Canada.

Imagine plain white billboards with bj defiantly dragging on a steaming butt, clad head-to-toe in black leather.

He is standing with one foot on the ground and the other propped up on a black coffin emblazoned with the skull and crossbones.

But who is in the coffin? Is it the tobacco industry, deep-sixed by legislated ‘trademark appropriation?’ Is it the retailer, eviscerated by the loss of such profitable merchandise? Or is it our sons and daughters, set on a course of addiction in defiance of boomer values?

Draw your own conclusions. Whatever your opinion, you would do well to remember the words printed on the bottom flap of every packet of death cigarettes: Mors vincit omnia (Death conquers all.)

Will Novosedlik and Bob Russell are principals of Russell Design in Toronto.