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In Tobacco's Face

The scene opens with three Gen-Xers atop a bridge, sizing up the ravine they're about to bungee-jump into. To a driving, powerchord 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 thew 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. An irreverent spot developed by Crispin Porter & Bogusky for the state of Florida last year shows the Grim Reaper walking in on a meeting of tobacco executives. He breaks the heavy silence: "You guys are killing me! One thousand people a day? Come on, gimme a break. There's only one of me, you know." He asks them to cut the daily death toll in half, but his pleadings are ignored. "I didn't want to pull rank, but I know the Devil," he adds. "I have a huge knife, guys."

Crispin Porter developed another spot for Florida in the guerilla-theater tradition of David Letterman and Michael Moore. In the ad, two dudes drive up to an actual Phillip Morris plant, and tell the security guard they've come to see the Marlboro Man. With hidden cameras rolling, the security guard delivers the sad news: "He passed away some time ago."

A similar approach was used for the two ads that Phillip Morris stopped by invoking the vilification clause. In one ad, two teenagers enter the lobby of Phillip Morris's New York headquarters carrying an oversize briefcase marked LIE DETECTOR and announce that they want to deliver it to the marketing department to clear up any confusion over whether smoking is addictive. Some clearly flustered security guards manage to usher them out. In the second spot, a throng of teenagers pull up in front of Phillip Morris's headquarters with an 18-wheeler, and begin unloading hundreds of long white sacks marked BODY BAG, creating a snowbank of bags along two sides of the building. One of the teenagers shouts at the building through a megaphone: "Do you know how many people tobacco kills every day?" The two ads never state that the tobacco company was Phillip Morris. But the company, the industry's biggest player, managed to put an end to them, at least temporarily. "We felt that they are not consistent with the focus and mission of the American Legacy Foundation," says Carolyn Levy, Phillip Morris's senior vice president for youth smoking prevention.

Many people in the ad business said the two spots were the best of the bunch. "That was the stuff that was really tweaking tobacco's nose," said Donny Deutsch, CEO of the Deutsch ad agency in New York. A Legacy Foundation spokeswoman said it was premature to comment. The Internet is providing a helping hand in finding an audience for them, though. On Friday, a tobacco watchdog group, the American Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation, announced that the two spots could be viewed at its Web site, no-smoke.org. Stay tuned. Given the high stakes, the battle over negative tobacco advertising is certain to last far longer than this year's presidential campaign.

 

Adam Bryant, Newsweek. March 20, 2000.

Copyright © 2000 Newsweek, Inc.. All rights reserved.