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Antismoking Ads Aimed at Teens Hit TV

Get ready for advertising's biggest-ever campaign to get people not to buy something.

A huge ad drive intended to keep kids from smoking made its debut on television last night, the opening salvo in the largest, most richly funded public-health crusade in U.S. history. The campaign is being financed with $1.5 billion from the 1998 legal settlement between tobacco companies and all 50 states.

The first of the antismoking pitches is shot in the extreme-sports style often used these days to sell soft drinks to teens. It stars a trio of bungee-jumping kids, the first two of whom dive off a bridge, hurtle downward, grab a can of soda from the ground and drink it as they shoot skyward again on their bungee cords.

When the third jumper opens his can, however, it explodes, turning him into a ball of flame in midair. An onscreen message reads: "Only one product actually kills a third of the people who use it. Tobacco."

The ad, and others that will follow within weeks, are part of a larger effort orchestrated by a nonprofit group called the American Legacy Foundation, which wants to change the way Americans think about tobacco. The foundation plans to employ all the weapons of modern marketing - from TV, radio and magazine advertising to the Internet and grass-roots organizing - to discourage smoking.

The centerpiece of the strategy is to build an alternative "brand" for teenagers - named "Truth" - that will compete with the cigarette makers' iconic Marlboro, Camel and Lucky Strike brands. "We want to create a brand that, over the long haul, kids can relate to," says Pete Favat, executive vice president of Arnold Communications, the foundation's lead agency.

There are limits, however, on how far American Legacy can go. Under the terms of the tobacco settlement, the foundation's ads can't include "any personal attack on, or vilification of" and individual, company or government agency. The chair of the foundation's board, Christine O. Gregoire, the attorney general of Washington state, has ordered that some ads be changed to make sure that they follow the rules set down in the settlement agreement.

Some of the American Legacy's spots also have been questioned by TV-network censors. Of the Big Three broadcast networks, only NBC has approved American Legacy ads so far, says Dr. Cheryl Healton, chief executive of the Washington-based American Legacy. Dr. Healton says she hopes ABC and CBS will agree to air the ads soon. "We're confident we're going to be on the air everywhere we need to be," she said.

In many ways, the foundation is headed into uncharted territory, taking on a product that is legal, used by about 23% of American adults and promoted with billions of dollars in tobacco-company marketing muscle. The antismoking campaign is proceeding on a scale that will dwarf AIDS education and efforts to combat drunk driving. It will even outspend the government's high profile antidrug campaign.

The focus, initially, is on keeping kids from lighting up. About 3,000 children start smoking every day, and about a third of them will die of smoking-related diseases, according to U.S. public-health statistics. But Dr. Healton said the campaign will soon expand to include messages encouraging smokers to quit and warning of the dangers of second-hand smoke. She said another important mission is creating a political climate conducive to enacting greater restrictions on tobacco sales.

American Legacy's youth strategy mimics a program launched by the state of Florida in 1998. The program is credited with reducing smoking among teenagers in the state by nearly 10%.

Preventing smoking is a tough sell. "Kids use tobacco for the same reasons they pierce their ears or dye their hair," says Jeff Hicks, president of Crispin Porter. "They're trying to make a statement to their friends and their parents that they're in control of their life." The Florida campaign has succeeded, he said, by channeling teenagers' natural rebelliousness into a revolt against cigarette makers, in part by portraying them as manipulative and out to get kids.


Gordon Fairclough, The Wall Street Journal. February 8, 2000.

Copyright © 2000 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.. All rights reserved.