In Tobacco's Face: The Latest Antitobacco Ads Are Hyperaggressive, and That Has Giant Philip Morris Smoking Mad

By Bryant, Adam | Newsweek, March 20, 2000 | Go to article overview

In Tobacco's Face: The Latest Antitobacco Ads Are Hyperaggressive, and That Has Giant Philip Morris Smoking Mad


Bryant, Adam, Newsweek


The scene opens with three Gen-Xers atop a bridge, sizing up the ravine they're about to bungee-jump into. To a driving, power-chord soundtrack, they take turns performing an awesome stunt--as they reach the end of the chord, they grab a can of "Splode'' soda off a rock. As the first and second jumpers bounce skyward, they open their prize, spraying a liquid blast into their mouths. For the third jumper, though, the can explodes, obliterating him in a ball of flames. The screen fills with the words: "Only one product actually kills a third of the people who use it. Tobacco."

Presidential candidates aren't the only ones pushing negative campaigning tactics to new extremes these days. The "Splode'' ad is part of a new, pull-no-punches, $185 million campaign aimed at convincing kids not to light up. It's the most money ever dedicated to a national antismoking effort. In contrast to public-service announcements of yore that were quickly tuned out as visual wallpaper, the new state-of-the-art spots are running on prime-time shows like "Dawson's Creek" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." But what distinguishes the new ads most is their confrontational attitude. Research shows that teens respond best to ads that directly attack the tobacco industry. One study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) concluded that an aggressive tone was essential: "Anti-tobacco advertisements need to be ambitious, hard-hitting, explicit, and in-your-face."

But the creators of the new ads are forced to walk a fine line in finding just the right degree of vitriol. That's because the multimedia campaign is being funded by the American Legacy Foundation, a nonprofit established to reduce smoking. Who bankrolls it? Ironically, Big Tobacco, which helped set it up in 1998 as part of the industry's $246 billion legal settlement. The money, however, comes with a catch. The foundation is not allowed to run ads that seek to "vilify'' tobacco companies or their executives. Although the industry has no control over what goes into the ads, it recently invoked the clause to yank two spots off the air.

Clearly, the stakes are high. Most smokers start in their teens. Researchers say ads have the greatest chance of making an impression on young kids--a just-released study in the American Journal of Public Health of antitobacco advertising in Massachusetts showed that 12- and 13-year-olds who were regularly exposed to such ads were half as likely to start smoking as peers who saw the ads less frequently. The study said the ads had little effect on older teens.

Advertising executives say there are some basic do's and don'ts for developing antitobacco spots. For example, avoid using the word "don't,'' because it will probably prod a teenager to do precisely what you're telling them not to do. But how to make a spot biting and edgy enough to get a teenager's attention? That's where art comes in. …

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