How Nontobacco Ads Help Sell Cigarettes

With its finding that 30 percent of female high-school seniors smoke, a new report by the Surgeon General is sure to prompt fresh attacks on tobacco advertising. When you look at cigarette ads, though, the target barely seems worth the ammunition fired at it. It’s mostly a bland, boring category. To the extent the ads generate interest, they usually do so by subordinating tobacco to other topics. Thus, cigarette ads may make you want to frolic in the woods, pick up brazen hussies in bars or drive in the Indianapolis 500. But smoke? Not especially. So, if cigarette ads are too dull to account for the ongoing recruitment of new smokers, what does? One finds a possible clue in the Surgeon General’s study. It notes that girls who smoke are more susceptible to “risk taking and rebelliousness” than their nonsmoking peers. Inundated by grown-up remonstrance on the dangers of tobacco, kids naturally see smoking as a way to express these tendencies. And as bad luck would have it, tons of ads—for sneakers, fast food, soft drinks, you name it—exalt rebelliousness and risk taking. In what amounts to a vast (albeit unintentional) subsidy of tobacco brands, these nontobacco ads promote the sensibility that many teens end up expressing viacigarettes. We needn’t be surprised, then, that the rate of smoking by teen girls rose during the ’90s, even as tobacco advertisers were hemmed in by restrictions. We simply need to acknowledge that ads in one category can affect our appetite in another. (For instance, Corona beer’s lazing-on-the-beach commercials might nudge you toward booking a tropical vacation.) This also means anti-smoking ads can’t merely rebut tobacco ads. They must combat the whole climate in which smoking is a live option—a much trickier target. The “Truth” campaign is a case in point. Highly regarded though the campaign is, its emphasis on “truth” is subverted by a culture that says there’s no such thing as “the truth.” There’s just my truth and your truth and anyone else’s. The irony here is that the attack on tobacco is undercut not by the sensibility of Corporate America but by postmodern relativism.