The Wages Of Sin: The Tobacco Companies Will Now Pay For Smoking And Anti-Smoking Ads.
Smoking may be stealing front-page headlines, but anti-smoking campaigns are as old as the first cigarette. Consider the colorful history of its detractors when smoke got in their eyes.
In the early 1600s, King James I of England denounced the vice, describing it as “a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black, stinking fume thereof nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless.”
Not to be outdone, a former school teacher named Lucy Page Gaston founded one of the earliest anti-smoking groups in tobacco history some 300 years later.
Of course, much like many of today’s advocates, Gaston’s crusade for a “clean life” was geared to the young. The earnest reformer launched the Chicago Anti-Cigarette League and later ran for president on an anti-smoking platform, even attacking her opponent, Warren Harding, as having a distrustful “cigarette face.”
While her outrageous tactics ultimately compromised her views and led to her forced resignation from the group in 1919, Gaston’s efforts marked the historic beginning of a century-long public relations war between the tobacco industry and anti-tobacco groups.
Sound familiar? Long ago, Gaston warned boys that the free trading cards adorned with images of actors, actresses and sports stars that came with cigarettes were not worth the health risks. Today, anti-tobacco groups fight against savvy merchandising programs such as Marlboro Miles and Camel Cash.
While cigarette makers have used glamour, style and sex appeal to peddle their products, heath-advocacy groups such as the American Cancer Society have worked diligently to educate people about the hazards of smoking. It’s been a Herculean effort. Last year, cigarette companies spent $675 million on advertising, according to Competitive Media Reporting. By contrast, anti-smoking campaigns, constricted by diminutive budgets and dependence on donated media time, have been drowned out by the walloping advertising budgets of tobacco companies. Until now.
As part of the nation’s landmark $368.5 billion settlement reached by the tobacco industry (Brown & Williamson, R.J. Reynolds, Philip Morris and Lorillard) and 40 state attorneys general in June, cigarette manufacturers will settle lawsuits by awarding punitive damages, submit to regulation by the Food and Drug Administration and drastically alter their marketing programs in exchange for immunity from future class actions. In addition, they will have to spend $500 million yearly to combat their own ads by financing anti-tobacco advertising. President Clinton has proposed an additional $1.50 per pack price hike, as well.
If other states follow Florida’s lead, the spending for anti-smoking messages in the next few years may surpass the ad budget of the tobacco industry. For instance, as part of a Florida settlement negotiated in late August, the tobacco companies agreed to pay the state $200 million to be used for an anti-smoking campaign that will include advertising, educational programs and stricter policing of tobacco sales to minors over a two-year period. The settlement was also extended to Mississippi.
In the past, most anti-smoking advertising was done pro bono and provided by the American Cancer Society or the American Lung Association. But in 1969, broadcasters were forced to donate equal time to tobacco-control groups. When legislation banned cigarette ads on TV and radio two years later, anti-smoking spots were relegated to off-peak hours. The time slot rendered even the most meaningful messages impotent.
That was then; this is now.
In recent years, viewers have seen a slow, steady rise in prime-time anti-smoking ads. The reason? Pro bono ads were transformed into paid media accounts funded by state cigarette tax revenues. A public health hazard proved to be a boon to the ad industry.
In 1989, California passed legislation to run paid-for anti-smoking ad campaigns funded by cigarette tax revenues. Massachusetts passed similar legislation in 1992, as did Arizona in 1994. Oregon followed suit this year.
Legislation follows on the heels of exhaustive activism. Much like their past counterparts, anti-smoking crusaders perceive their work as a fight to the finish. “We are in a war,” insists Colleen Stevens, chief of California’s tobacco control media campaign. “The media is the air cover and the other programs our ground troops.”
The prospect of a national commitment in the battle against tobacco offers tremendous encouragement to health groups nationwide. “We are pleased [with recent developments],” adds Stevens. “The more players that are out there, the better. This is a national tragedy.”
National health groups estimate there are approximately 45 million smokers in the United States and that some 3,000 teenagers pick up the habit every day.
“The tobacco industry spends $6 billion to make smoking part of the culture, to make people think it is normal,” says Stevens. “There’s nothing normal about it. One-third to one-half of the people who smoke die from smoking-related illnesses.”
Since research has shown that most adult smokers pick up the habit in their teenage years, anti-smoking efforts have focused serious attention on reducing and preventing teen smoking. As part of the $368.5 billion settlement, tobacco companies will have to pay up to $2 billion a year in additional penalties if underage smoking doesn’t fall by 30 percent in five years and 60 percent in 10 years.
Ironically, the talents of the advertising community, which helped the tobacco companies to expand its $10 billion industry for decadesf40, are now being sought by the government to undo its successes. Agencies that handle state-funded anti-smoking accounts-such as Asher/Gould in Los Angeles, Houston Herstek Favat in Boston and The Riester Corp. in Phoenix-are charged with the task of un-selling one of the most heavily marketed products of the 20th century.
“It is a very challenging account,” admits Bruce Dundore, executive vice president and creative director of Asher/Gould. Since 1994, his agency has worked on the California Department of Health Services’ (CDHS) tobacco-control account, which currently spends an estimated $22 million on media.
“It’s tough to get people not to buy stuff, especially when it’s a product equated with pleasure,” Gould admits. Still, Asher/Gould hasn’t been timid in its criticism of the tobacco industry. One of the agency’s early spots for the CDHS featured footage of the heads of major tobacco companies testifying before Congress that they did not believe nicotine was addictive.
“Now the tobacco industry tells us secondhand smoke isn’t dangerous. Do they think we’re stupid?” asks the voiceover. Another controversial spot showed a man fishing, reeling in one after another. Close-ups show the fish lying on the deck, struggling to breathe. “The tobacco industry knows the more nicotine their cigarettes have, the more hooked you’ll be,” the ad notes. “But you know what they say. There’s plenty more fish in the sea. They profit; you lose. The tobacco industry.”
Asher/Gould’s most recent efforts have continued to strip tobacco companies of their innocence with a sharper emphasis on teens. The agency has been particularly successful in using the industry’s advertising icons to hammer home its own anti-smoking messages.
In one spot, for example, the cowboys of Marlboro country are cast as tobacco marketers and their cattle is a herd of children. “This is how the guys who make cigarettes want you to see them, and this is how they see you,” says the voiceover, while the ranchers steer the kids into a pen. “Once they get you where they want you, they’ve got you for life. If you knew what they thought,” the spot warns, “you’d think twice.”
So compelling are some anti-smoking spots that Boston’s Houston Herstek Favat has built a creative reputation on its award-winning commercials for the $12 million Massachusetts Department of Health account.
Some of the agency’s most powerful spots show the harsh medical realities of the effects of smoking. In one memorable ad, a man sings “Happy Birthday” to the tobacco industry through the shrill, electronic tones of his voice box. “Celebrating 121 years of fine tobacco products,” says the spot. “It’s time we made smoking history.”
A powerful Houston Herstek campaign called “The Truth” features testimonials from ex-employees and former supporters of the tobacco industry. In one spot, former tobacco lobbyist Victor Crawford speaks out on the industry’s recruitment of young smokers. “I was a lobbyist, and I know how tobacco companies work I lied, and I’m sorry,” he says. The spot ends with a frame stating that Crawford later died from throat cancer. “It was sort of a deathbed confession,” says Pete Favat, creative director and partner at the agency.
In a recent ad in the series, the brother of one of the Marlboro man models tells of his sibling’s death from lung cancer. Another Houston Herstek spot features a powerful endorsement for the anti-smoking movement. Patrick Reynolds, grandson of R.J. Reynolds, talks about the hidden chemicals found in cigarettes. “Why am I telling you this?” he asks. “I want my family to be on the right side for a change.”
“We don’t want the ads to be lofty messages from the government,” says Favat. “We wanted the messages to come from kids and people involved in the industries.” Teen ads have focused on anti-social aspects of smoking, such as one graphic ad that shows how ugly a smoker can be on a date when he coughs up a lung.
In Arizona, The Riester Corp. has adopted the vernacular of teenagers to reach them in a $20 million campaign that calls smoking a “tumor-causing, teeth-staining, smelly, puking habit.” The campaign, according to David Robb, vice president and creative director of The Riester Corp., attempts to take the “cool” out of cigarette smoking.
“They can listen to what the tobacco industry is telling them, but I am giving them another brand-not smoking,” says Robb. “We are giving them the ammunition to say, ‘I’m OK if I don’t smoke.’ “
The ad campaign, which the Center for Disease Control recently distributed to 15 more states, is augmented with the “Ash-Kicker,” a 43-foot traveling exhibition that gives children the unusual experience of walking through a model of a smoker’s diseased body.
“It’s a horror show. Kids love it,” says Robb. The agency has also borrowed a popular marketing technique from cigarette companies-merchandising. It sells T-shirts, caps and other items branded with the ad slogan.
Despite their best efforts, there is little evidence to suggest that the anti-smoking campaigns have been overly effective, especially among teens. Stevens admits that, while cigarette consumption in California has dropped from 28 percent to 18 percent since the tobacco-control program began, the rate of smoking among teenagers has not declined. It has, however, stabilized in California, much as it has in Massachusetts.
Not surprisingly, the lackluster results have left some taxpayers skeptical of the power of the advertising. “Anti-smoking ads are a great way to win awards,” says Boston-based freelance copywriter John Welsh. “It’s like any other advertising. It’s not a science. Some ads work; some don’t.
If you have a cousin who dies of lung cancer, that’s more powerful than any commercial.”
While cigarette companies have had ample opportunity to market the chic lifestyle of a smoker, anti-smoking advertising is still in its infancy. For those agencies armed with creativity, savvy research and, most importantly, tax dollars to support their campaigns, the anti-smoking battle has just begun.
“It’s great to sell products, but with this account, maybe I can save a kid from smoking. We’re known as such shills in this business,” Favat muses. “Hopefully, we will look back on cigarette advertisements as something of the past. We need to strip down an American icon.”
“God is on your side with an account like this,” adds Robb. “You are dealing with a behavioral issue here.” He sees his anti-smoking work in terms of David and Goliath. “We’re the little guys against the big corporate giants. It’s a challenge. Can it be done? Well, you want to be the one who does it. You want to go out and slay the dragon.”