Plain Tobacco Packaging: the Numbing Power of Images and the Aesthetic of Standardization.
It has become a troublesome enterprise to demonize smoking, since it looks so elegant in films. Uma Thurman as Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction (1994) looks effortlessly fashionable with a cigarette in her hand. The shade of Chanel nail polish she wears on the poster and throughout the film sold out after the film was released. This indicates every visual code that made up Mia Wallace transformed her into an icon the general public identifies with, in spite of a set of morals some might not exactly approve of. She makes the viewer want to be like her, and since not all of us look good in a sleek black bob, we take up smoking. Let us not even start with Audrey Hepburn’s whole getup in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), for many of us would look like complete lunatics if we even attempted to recreate the cigarette, cigarette holder, tiara, pearls and black gown combo she sports in some of the most memorable scenes in cinema history. In an effort to include men, I do believe most of us would look
like homeless people if we sought to mirror Clint Eastwood’s rugged and manly appearance in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966). It would also be rather unpractical to decide to nap on the side of the road like River Phoenix’s soft and sleepy self does throughout My Own Private Idaho (1991). But what we can do is simply buy a pack of Toasted Lucky Strikes and appropriate these loaded gestures, slowly bringing the cigarette up to our lips and taking a wistful drag, or nervously puffing our lives away.
In short, this costly activity makes you smell terrible, provides you with an array of non-glamorous characteristics, such as yellowing teeth or the more insidious lung cancer cigarette packs keep warning us against; yet visual culture has worked very hard to associate it with something very few of us will attain: posterity. And while those icons will go on to live forever, we are left spending money and time we haven’t lived yet on those small death sticks.
This is the heritage public health advocates have to work against. The last effort in a series of actions taken these past few years has been to introduce plain tobacco packaging, first in Australia in 2012, and in France in 2016. But I want to argue they are in fact far from plain. Plain tobacco packaging
means a logo free, usually black or dark green pack regardless of the brand. The specific colour chosen is an olive shade of green referred to as “Pantone 448 C”. Ironically enough, Pantone is an American corporation that releases one colour every year, claiming in the most artificial fashion possible that it
is the most “in” colour of the year.
Since this analysis so far is very much based on appearances, it seems necessary to prompt the question: is any colour really ugly in postmodern times? And as a response I want to show here three popular fashion collections by three even more popular contemporary designers who all make use of shades close to Pantone 448C. Kanye West’s 2016 collection, Craig Green’s 2016 collection and Rick Owens’ 2015 collection. Interestingly enough, the latter claims his work is heavily influenced by standardization, a concept I will develop later on. Picking an ugly colour therefore seems like a
fashionable choice for plain tobacco packaging.
Studies conducted by the Australian government reported it was the least appealing colour to people, especially younger people. This raises the question: Do people smoke because it is attractive? Do people prioritize a brand over another one because of the packaging? Or maybe addiction plays a
bigger part than the identification process and pleasure deriving from having a different or similar tobacco pack than one’s neighbor. This leads me to think that the new standardized tobacco packs actually obey to a set of modern concepts, notably minimalism, desensitization and standardization.
This gives them a rejuvenated aesthetic that I am going to argue actually makes smoking more attractive today.
One of the new plain tobacco packs available in France warns us against impotence, and does so through the use of a photograph of a man curled up on himself, lying on sheets that are a couple of shades away from serenity blue, one of the two pantone colours of 2016.
To take this iconographic analysis further, his skin color is obviously not rose quartz, which would look very unsettling, yet it is not that far of a stretch to compare them. The composition is flattering as well. This muscular figure, clenching at the sheets in unmanly despair is at the center of this perfectly balanced photograph. The way his body is positioned shows three almost perfect triangles. His talons, knees and behind make up one, which is instantly reflected by his groin, his elbow and the upper part of the chest. Not only are those quite aesthetically pleasing, they suggest the presence of his primary sexual organs –the genitals- and secondary ones, the nipples. The warning on the pack tells us that the former are non-functional, but the image showcases them in a subtly attractive manner, and centers them between the lower triangle I have previously pointed out, and the triangle made up of this man’s hand, elbow and chin. Those angles are once again reflected in the
ruffled sheets that the lighting makes even more evident.
This suggests that the photographer’s eye mediated the message according to his own sensibility, and that he couldn’t resist making a beautiful picture. When the iconography of this photograph is paired with the memory of the movie icons mentioned earlier, it suddenly seems like being impotent might not be all that terrible after all, and even if I am not able to have any children,
posterity will be offered to me through the simple act of smoking.
Since I have mentioned movie icons present in our collective memory, I want to suggest this tobacco pack reminds of The Most Beautiful Suicide, a 1947 photograph of Evelyn McHale taken against her will –she wrote a letter stipulating she wanted to be cremated and not seen by her family, a rather
dreadful turn of events made her suicide into one of the most iconic images in the world. Here we find ourselves staring at the body of a dead woman, thinking she looks absolutely beautiful. The roof of the limo she landed on seems to have become a bed for Ms. McHale, as she clenches her pearl not unlike our anonymous impotent man.
This is the unpredictable power of images, the power to make us look at tragic circumstances and stories, and turn them into something beautiful. W.J.T Mitchell asked “What Do Pictures Want?” in his 2005 essay, and suggested that pictures want us to look at them as they look back. This seduction
game is what the images on plain tobacco packaging play with. “Their main function is to awaken desire; to create, not gratify thirst; to provoke a sense of lack and craving by giving us the apparent presence of something and taking it away in the same gesture.” Argued Mitchell in his essay, and that I echo when I say impotence suddenly looks like something to long for.
Unfortunately, their arguable beauty causes a disconnect between the image and the concepts it is supposed to represent. Impotence, pain and death become vague and distant, as they are overshadowed by carefully crafted visual symbols, up for interpretation.
Beyond aesthetic pleasure, Susan Sontag took this predicament further in her collection of essays On Photography, published in 1977. The sheer number of images we are confronted with causes numbness, since “photographs shock insofar as they show something novel”, and the visual vocabulary employed on plain tobacco packs is not exactly new by any stretch of the imagination. Not only does accumulation itself desensitizes the viewer to problematic imagery, but the act of looking at a photograph in itself, she argues, “invites […] an acquisitive relation to the world that nourishes aesthetic awareness and emotional detachment”. After seeing a woman’s eye being sliced in Buñuel and Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou back in 1929, am I really going to be shocked and thereby disgusted by the idea of smoking when gazing upon a blind eye staring at me every time I reach for a smoke?
This visual pleasure and numbness is then framed by the standard packaging itself. Minimalism in design means the subject is reduced to its necessary elements. Plain tobacco packaging effectively does just that: basic information about the dangers of smoking most people already knew about, a hotline number framed in yellow, a violent or downright gore image the nature and effectiveness of which I discussed earlier, and the brand itself, stripped of its logo. The process of standardizing weights and measures was developed in the 18th century and was designed to make life easier merchants selling measurable goods. But under other circumstances such as ours, maybe it is making life easier for consumers. What I am trying to get at is that there are always two ways –or more, but I’m running out of words- to tell a story. Being constantly bombarded with chaotic combinations of images that are fighting for our attention, as Yves Citton postulates in For an Ecology of Attention (2014), it sure feels like a nice change to have plain tobacco packs focus our gaze so effectively.
The most likely unplanned effect is that from now on, one will not pick a brand because of its visual storytelling -or exchange value- since all brands have become similar. What will happen is that tobacco will be analysed and chosen because of its taste and affordability, or in other words: its use value. Without the illusion of choice and attraction to a specific brand, is the exploitative nature of tobacco production more easily discernible? Maybe not, commodity fetishism is a powerful force. However the artificial intrinsic value of different tobacco brands has now vanished, making tobacco a post-commodity –or just a product, but I wanted to end this essay on a bold word.