Legacy’s Decade of Smoke Signals

A decade after debuting a spot in which teens dumped 1,200 body bags in front of an unnamed tobacco company to demonstrate how many people are killed daily by cigarette smoking, the renowned “Truth” campaign faces a new obstacle: dwindling resources.

“The ‘Truth’ campaign doesn’t reach as many young people as [it once did],” says Cheryl Healton, president and CEO of the American Legacy Foundation, which oversees the ads. “We used to do a campaign every quarter, now we’re lucky if we do two a year.”

The reason: Legacy was born out of the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement among the three largest U.S. tobacco companies and 46 states and five U.S. territories. The money it received funded the campaign, originally a joint effort from Crispin Porter + Bogusky, Miami, and Arnold, Boston. But the money is being exhausted, says Healton, and they’ve had to reduce the media buy about 50 percent since the campaign’s inception. Legacy is currently seeking federal funding.

Financial problems also meant that the foundation, in late 2007, had to scale back its agency partnerships, consolidating creative chores on the account at Arnold.

“Truth,” which has won more than 400 awards, including Emmys, Addys, Clios and a Grand Effie, has generated positive buzz ever since “Body Bag” aired. The creative executions have ranged from guerrilla-style ads to tongue-in-cheek musical productions and the biting satire of its most recent ad, which asks teens if they have what it takes to work for a tobacco company — e.g., could they spin bad news like the fact that “your product could potentially kill one billion people this century?” But the strategy has remained consistent: teens talking to teens about the dangers of smoking, and an implicit rejection of the tobacco industry’s tactics to recruit teens as consumers.

“The core philosophy of this is like Coke versus Pepsi,” says Healton. “We set it up as a brand to compete with big tobacco.”

“Kids are really cynical about big corporations and advertising,” says Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “Making the whole industry look like a vast conspiracy and an evil empire is not a bad way of advertising.”

Preaching to kids about the dangers of smoking wouldn’t work, adds Pete Favat, CCO of Arnold. “We wanted to make a tangible out of an intangible,” he says. “The media strategy has changed, but we’re still tapping into youth rebellion.”

According to Kantar Media, $109 million was spent in measured media in 2000, compared to $32 million last year. To compensate for the decrease, recent years have seen the effort move from network TV to cable buys, and a greater emphasis placed on digital efforts, such as social networking platforms, online games and videos. There’s also been a focus on experiential initiatives, such as Legacy’s work with the Vans Warped Tour, a music event sponsored by the sneaker brand. The effort includes “Truth” brand representatives who communicate face-to-face with teens at the different venues.

In addition to the financial challenge, says Healton, the campaign — and fighting teen tobacco use in general — faces another obstacle: the entertainment industry, which continues to produce TV shows and feature films with characters who smoke. “Smoking proliferates so much in the movies,” she says, pointing to dialog in Avatar that has a lead character looking for her cigarettes. Without such role models, she says, “I suspect we would have quit smoking by now.”

In response, Legacy has been running spots at the start of DVD releases from companies including Warner Bros. and Disney. Anti-smoking efforts also run regularly before movies in theaters. “We hit teens in as many different places as possible,” says Eric Asche, svp of marketing at Legacy.

Healton says their strategy has proven effective. “We know if there is a counter message, it has a counter effect,” she says. And research published in the April 2009 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found “Truth” prevented 450,000 teens from starting to smoke from 2000 to 2004. A second study in the same journal noted that the campaign paid for itself in its first two years and saved between $1.9 billion and $5.4 billion in medical care costs.
Of course, a confluence of events, including laws limiting the places people can smoke and recent legislation further limiting tobacco advertising’s reach, has worked in concert with the foundation’s efforts.

“The wind has been on our backs,” says Favat. But Healton stresses that “it’s still a David versus Goliath battle.

(Correction: The “Truth” campaign actually predates both Legacy and Crispin Porter’s 1998 Florida campaign. It was created for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health in 1994 at Houston Effler Herstek Favat, Boston.)