The Problems and Potential of Plain Packaging

Over the last many months, Canadian politicians have been fiercely, passionately debating branding — or rather, lack thereof. Looking to follow in the footsteps of several other countries around the world, Canada has been seeking specifically to remove all branding and all corporate labelling from tobacco products in an effort to minimize smoking. No colours, no imagery, no logos, no suggestion, no enticement — no anything at all, save for simple black letters in an unassuming font on a little box. (And also a bunch of gross, off-putting pictures about the effects of smoking and nicotine use — those aren’t going anywhere.)

Here is how we got here and what it could mean.

The Background

In 2012, the Australian government introduced plain packaging on tobacco products. The idea was that any sort of advertising, which inherently tries to catch the eye and make a sale, increases the likelihood of people—and especially children—buying cigarettes and smoking. Thus, by removing all marketing efforts on the product itself, consumers would be less compelled to buy tobacco products.

Data was then released by the Institute of Health and Welfare in the form of its National Drug Strategy Household Survey, and determining whether the program was positive would perhaps depend on your viewpoint. While there was a decline in the number of teens smoking, other age groups stayed the same. While there was a general decrease in the number of smokers, the decrease slowed considerably in relation to other years. For the most part, it is hard to pinpoint causation and correlation. What’s more, there is no particular data on each brand’s sales.

But beyond that, if the government decides to control branding for one specific product, however harmful, it could reasonably decide to do the same for other products — such as, say, sugar. What’s more, we are all well aware of the power of advertising, for better and worse, and both the beauty and the, well, ugliness that branding can create. That would be gone.

Marijuana 

While the ‘slippery slope’ argument is too often used by those who want to rouse rabbles and sound the alarm for things that aren’t really problems, the initial instance of plain packaging in Canada has already occurred; Health Canada announced in March that legal pot will be sold in plain packaging.

Well, it’s not entirely plain, but the idea we’re seeing with tobacco is the foundation here, too. There will be a yellow warning label, as well as a red stop sign atop a silhouette of a marijuana leaf. Permissible on the packaging will be one brand element, such as a logo or slogan, but it mustn’t be bigger than that stop sign. And there is to be nothing shiny: no fluorescents, no metallics.

Retailers 

Marijuana is not tobacco, certainly, and while the plain packaging for both varies slightly, the consequences for retailers of the former seem pretty clear. What Canada is about to experience, similarly to several states in the U.S., is a growing (ahem) number of small business owners selling marijuana and marijuana accessories. Consumers, as they are wont to do, can shop around until they find a company or companies that they want to support for one reason or another.

When you remove labelling—which, when it comes to pot, one would imagine can get especially creative and appealing—you lose the ability to identify what you want. There is indeed an identity crisis. It looks to hurt small business owners trying to grow their brand, making it harder for them to stand out in what is surely to be a crowd.

What’s more, when you remove branding, you remove something perhaps personal, communal, or cultural.

Craft Beer

Canada in general, and Ontario in particular, has a slew of craft breweries, patronized by those who want to support the community and are eager to try the new and exciting tastes of Canada. A trip to the Beer Store or LCBO (Ontario’s liquor store) demonstrates the width and breadth of what’s available. But a trip will also showcase a diversity of labels, and for some, indeed, the creativity and attractiveness of a label makes a difference.

Now, those differences come in a variety of degrees, but if you’re in a curious mood and want to try something new, you may be drawn to the label and the name. And they go hand in hand. For example, Collective Arts is a very Canadian brand of craft beer based in Hamilton, and as its name suggests, the company blends together a love of beer with a love of art. Its cans are diverse and stunning, and surely—absolutely—contribute to people buying their beer. Take away the branding and you lose something Canadian, something creative, and something compelling.

For all the negative effects advertising can have by pushing things that are unhealthy on those unaware or easily influenced, by leveling the playing field to the most basic, everything can be lost. Nothing distinct, nothing creative, and really no reason to stand in the supermarket aisle for five minutes trying to figure out which brand of artichoke hearts is the one you’re going to take home tonight.

Anthony Marcusa
Anthony Marcusa is a Toronto-based freelance journalist whose writing dabbles in film, TV, music, sports, and relationships – though not necessarily in that order. He’s simultaneously youthfully idealistic and curmudgeonly cynical. But he’s always curious.