Antismoking ads that understand teens.

Advertising deconstructed.
March 7 2005 1:26 PM

How To Get Teens Not To Smoke

Prey on their insecurity.

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The spots: They appear to be episodes of a sitcom called "Fair Enough." In this series of 30-second segments, a team of tobacco executives brainstorms new ways to market to teens. Among their ideas: fruit-flavored chewing tobacco, tobacco in the form of a gum ball, and an effort to win influence with the "hipster" crowd by giving them free packs of smokes. (Click here to see the ads.)

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

Back in my day, antismoking propaganda was not nearly this sophisticated. I recall one ad that showed kids dancing "the Twist" (à la Chubby Checker). In the course of their dancing they ground out cigarette butts with the soles of their shoes. Even in fourth grade, I was aware that this was lame. Perhaps if they'd done the "Cabbage Patch" or the "Roger Rabbit" I might have been more forgiving. But the Twist?

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Thankfully—for those who favor non-emphysemic teenagers—those days are over. The antismoking lobby has gotten hipper. Just look at this new set of spots from the "Truth" campaign (backed by the American Legacy Foundation): careful production values, lots of great ancillary Internet material, no obvious lameness.

What's most interesting about these spots is their underlying strategy. The ads aren't saying: "Hey kids, don't smoke! It gives you cancer, it makes your breath stink, and you'll have to talk through that buzzy voice-box thing because you'll have no larynx." (Such were the constant messages of my day—along with tips on resisting peer pressure.)

Instead, these new ads seem to say: "Hey kids, tobacco companies are evil! And you're a tool if you get duped by their manipulative marketing techniques. Do you want to be a tool, kids?"

This tack feels right to me. For, in the end, what does the teen fear most? Is it bad breath? Is it dying? No. (And dying's further down the list than bad breath.)

In fact, the ultimate adolescent nightmare is to appear in any way unsavvy—like an out-of-it rookie who doesn't know the score. These "Fair Enough" ads isolate and prey on that insecurity, and they do a great job. With a dead-on, rerun sitcom parody (jumpy establishing shot; upbeat horn-section theme song ending on a slightly unresolved note; three-wall, two-camera set; canned laugh track), the ads first establish their own savvy, knowing coolness before inviting us to join them in ridiculing big tobacco's schemes. The spots are darkly comic, just the way teens like it. And rather than serving up yet more boring evidence that smoking is deadly (something that all teens, including the ones who smoke, already know) the ads move on to the far more satisfying step: kicking big tobacco in the groin.

Here the campaign preys on another ingrained teen trait—defying authority. The ads construct this logic: Big tobacco is the man; now tell the man to go suck it. An early set of "Truth" ads made this theme even clearer, as kids attacked tobacco company headquarters with bullhorns and protests and street stunts. These looked like outtakes from a Michael Moore movie.

A funny spot from last year's Super Bowl changed the campaign's direction a bit. The ad masqueraded as a commercial for "Shards o' Glass Freeze Pops," skewering the tobacco companies' untenable "Yes it's gravely harmful, but you'll love it!" marketing position. The "Fair Enough" spots continue this evolution—backing away from the earnest posture, while ramping up the bitter cynicism.

As an adult, I find the whole campaign seriously wanting in subtlety and nuance (just as I find Michael Moore movies). But I'm sure as a kid I'd have thought these ads were kind of cool (back then I would have called them "dope" or "fresh" or "the mamma-jamma"). Teens have a great capacity for righteous outrage at all the world's evils. They're forever looking for something to be indignant about. Enter big tobacco—the perfect foil. When it comes to standing in for pure evil, big tobacco does a bang-up job.

Grade: B+. A recent study suggested that the "Truth" campaign has worked. It's directly responsible for stopping about 300,000 teens from smoking. That's the good news. (Stay off the gaspers, kids!) The bad news is that the funding's running out. The American Legacy Foundation received its last payment of $300 million (from the 1998 tobacco settlement) in March 2003. With no new influx of money, the Truth campaign will likely stop making and airing smart, effective spots like these.

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