John Oliver, host of HBO's "Last Week Tonight," turned his attention to the tobacco industry in Sunday night's episode, and it wasn't pretty for main target Philip Morris International.
The HBO host spent about 20 minutes ripping into the tobacco company's threats of lawsuits -- especially in poorer nations such as Togo -- in what Oliver called an attempt to ward off more stringent regulations on cigarettes, such as laws that require cigarette boxes to feature pictures of diseased body parts and warnings of the health consequences of smoking.
The show said a division of Philip Morris has threatened to sue the Australian government, alleging that the country's requirement that cigarette boxes not bear brand logos or imagery — such as the Marlboro Man — will reduce the value of the brand's trademark and intellectual property.
Toward the end of the segment, Oliver suggested a remedy to the problem, combining a health warning with a branded character.
He put forth a new character that, he said, Philip Morris is free to use to replace the Marlboro Man: "Jeff the Diseased Lung in a Cowboy Hat."
The character is exactly what it sounds like, a giant diseased lung wearing a cowboy hat and boots, smoking and coughing. Oliver encouraged viewers to tweet #JeffWeCan. They did, a lot. As of Monday afternoon, the hashtag is still trending on Twitter.
Philip Morris International saw the bit and referred the Los Angeles Times to this statement:
"On February 15, 2015, the 'Last Week Tonight with John Oliver' show dedicated a significant portion of its program to our company.
"'Last Week Tonight with John Oliver' is a parody show, known for getting a laugh through exaggeration and presenting partial views in the name of humor. The segment includes many mischaracterizations of our company, including our approach to marketing and regulation, which have been embellished in the spirit of comedic license.
"While we recognize the tobacco industry is an easy target for comedians, we take seriously the responsibility that comes with selling a product that is an adult choice and is harmful to health.
"We support and comply with thousands of regulations worldwide — including advertising restrictions, penalties for selling tobacco products to minors, and substantial health warnings on packaging. We're investing billions into developing and scientifically assessing a portfolio of products that have the potential to be less harmful and that are satisfying so smokers will switch to them. And, like any other company with a responsibility to its business partners, shareholders and employees, we ask only that laws protecting investments, including trademarks, be equally applied to us.
"For a balanced view and facts on the many topics raised by the program, including PMI's marketing practices and approach to regulation, please take the time to read the following information:
"Find out about our 'Be Marlboro' campaign, which is aimed at competing for existing adult smoker market share here.