Rob Walker | Essays

Package It Black

At my local convenience store yesterday, Marlboro Blacks caught my eye. No surprise, given that a pack was on prominent display. Cursory Web investigation indicates that this product is only selectively available, perhaps in a testing phase, but I find it rather fascinating. Pairing the notion of cigarettes with the word “black,” underscored by packaging, called to mind a variety of associations, none of which might sound like a good idea — lungs blacked by smoking, darkened teeth, poisoned bodily systems, the blackness of death itself.

All of which sounds like new-product suicide by design. But is it?

Speculative package design by DJ Stout

Marlboro Black immediately reminded me of a two sets of speculative cigarette-pack designs from recent years. One is from DJ Stout, of Pentagram. After a new set of smoke-marketing rules was devised in 2009, The St. Petersburg Times asked Stout how manufacturers might respond, graphically. Stout suggested that “tobacco companies should embrace the restrictions and make cigarettes look truly dangerous.” Basically, everybody already knows that smoking is bad for you, so instead of trying to dodge the ever-expanding rules for repeating this point to consumers via design, Stout said, “just transform the whole cigarette pack into a three-dimensional warning label.”

Speculative package design by Build

Separately, Build, in an exercise for Icon, reacted to UK anti-cigarette legislation with a “debranded” pack — in this fiction, the cigarette-maker can offer little more than an anti-smoking warning, and/or a list of scary ingredients. (Note that both Stout and Build used Marlboro as the basis of their riffs.)

Marlboro Black, to me, offers a more subtle articulation of precisely the pack-as-warning strategy suggested by both imaginary designs above. It’s striking that the flagship Marlboro is known by its dominant packaging color — “Reds” — and I wonder if Philip Morris has long wanted to formalize and extend that idea across a spectrum of smokes. Marlboro Pink would be out of the question, of course, since it would appear to be sending a signal the Hello Kitty crowd. But the interesting thing about Marlboro Black is that it’s a color that speaks to the hardcore — the defiant smoker, undeterred by all the negative connotations I noted above, pleased to blow smoke in the face of nanny-state condemnation of the habit. After all, cigarettes have long connoted rebellion, and no color deepens that association better than black, the color of motorcycle jackets, pirate flags, and villiainy.

Amusingly, a disclaimer on the zip ribbon says: “Nothing about this cigarette, packaging, or color should be interpreted to mean safer.” Who would make that interpretation? The pack’s visual implication is that this is a particularly unsafe product. (At least that’s  my interpretation; there’s no actual information about what makes a Black different from a Red — it just says “special blend,” which is obviously a meaningless phrase.)  It functions as graphic design jujitsu: Yes, this is dangerous, mortally so; and that’s why you want it.

Comments [7]

I've enjoyed the speculative packaging solutions and the thought behind the concepts. If I could make one suggestion for DJs package: As with non-smokers, "ALL" of regular users of cigarettes, not "half," will eventually die.
Blake Miller

D.J. Stout was a decade late with that one. (Let's acknowledge Manuel Manilla for the skeleton, too.)

Death cigarettes (1999) made "black = extinction" an explicit dare to the smoker.

More on this tar-blackened topic on Design Observer here.
Rick Poynor

Let's not forget about Tibor Kalman's 1997 New York Times Op-Art discussing some of the same ground.
Ian Rousey

It is perhaps simply that Mr. Downer is a drunk, but I see, principally, a synergy with booze here: Black Velvet and Johnny Walker Black Label being the most obvious (and, on this cold winter afternoon, delightful sounding).

Of course that will kill you too, but I think the marketing tie-in is a little more obvious...
Mr. Downer

Have you seen the cigarettes packaging in Mexico?? They are a proof that package design has unexpected results on consumer preferences.
Raul Perez Duarte

Although I'm with Mr. Downer on this one – in that it seems more like an attempt to market them as a premium product – as a Greek smoker (2 packs a day) I can attest to the influence of packaging.

When Lucky Strike launched their blue packaging – which ended up looking more like a box of paracetamol – I promptly went back to smoking rollups.

Thanks for all the feedback and news of assorted precedents. Someone on Twitter pointed me to another over-the-top death pack with a grim reaper figure etc. Though as noted I do see this as distinct, for reasons of subtlety -- a brand like Marlboro (unlike a one-off stunt brand) is not going to put an actual death image on its packaging, for a variety of reasons. But I find it interesting that they're, in my view at least, kind of flirting with dangerous-allure in this way. That said, I take your (plural) points. Thanks again.

This of course ties in to alternate readings -- that the black in this case has nothing to do with danger but rather connotes sophistication, premium-ness (like the Amex Black Card, etc.). I considered that, but because nothing else about the pack reinforced the idea, I left it out. Plus I basically wanted to keep the post short. So I'm glad the line of thought came up here.

Anyway I have some updated notes from the field. A friend reports that, taste/experience-wise, Blacks are identical to Reds. And meanwhile, at my local convenience store, two college-age kids the other day specifically asked for Marlboro Black -- but in menthol form. The store didn't carry that variety, but the cashier had clearly been asked about it before. Also this weekend I noticed both varieties are available at my local Kroger. So I guess they're getting at least some traction, for one reason or another...
Rob Walker

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