Advertising is not a medium for outrage. Oh, it can be trendy and outrageous creatively, of course, and these days that means using ferrets or some other nasty vermin biting the legs of clueless goatee boys. But in the end, that work is not so different from the completely earnest Mr. Whipple canon. Ultimately, whether it's conventional or shocking, in good or bad taste, smart or dumb, advertising comes under the category of Working for the Man, a tool for selling enough stuff so the capitalist system ticks on. (Hey, we all have to make a living.)
There is an exception, however, and it's the "Truth" campaign, from the American Legacy Foundation. Exempt from the system entirely, it can afford to give the tobacco companies a lickin' while our economy keeps on tickin'. The funding (five $300 million payments) comes from the Master Settlement Agreement between Big Tobacco and 46 state attorneys general. And unlike most public-service work, the agencies involved get paid.
For the past four years, "Truth" has expressed true outrage with teen-directed spots that are so fearless, contentious, hard-core and unflinching, so atypically PSA and PC-preachy, that viewers surely do a double take. It's reassuring to know that no matter how bombarded we are with fakeness, when we're exposed to work as tough and blistering as this, it hits—we feel the difference.
In this campaign, released last week, kids get out information from some of the secret documents that have become public since tobacco execs were called before Congress in 1994 and all those state suits were filed. What a mother lode of malevolence the agency creatives have un covered. And uncovered is the operative word. Each of the three spots opens with the words "Truth behind the curtain" lettered over a large orange curtain, which is later flung open to reveal a new, horrifying truth nugget. The curtain is a clever device: It can convey magic, mystery, darkness, a cover-up. In this case, it also frames the story like a scene in a play.
One execution deals with a 1978 memo from a tobacco executive to the effect that few consumers know nico tine is addictive or a poison—the spot ends with, "Now they do." Another has a young woman reading answers from a briefing book given to tobacco CEOs in 1996 to answer tough health questions. "We believe we can operate business successfully," one answer goes. "440,000 deaths in one year—that's a success?" she asks.
The information is chilling and the spots are smart, but those two are a bit dull compared with the drama of previous campaigns. "Body Bags," an early spot, conveys the essence of Legacy's take-no-prisoners style: Teen reporters show up commando-style at Philip Morris headquarters with 1,200 stuffed black bags to illustrate how many people die from tobacco each day. My favorite spot, from this year's Super Bowl, shows a giant rodent crawling up the stairs of a subway station, gasping for air and then collapsing on the sidewalk. Not just another hairy, failed New York comedian with a suicidal sense of humor, he carries a sign: "There's cyanide in cigarette smoke. Same as in rat poison."
The third spot in the current series, however, deals with information that is so outrageous, preposterous and dehumanizing that if it came from the fevered brain of Dr. Evil, it would still seem horribly over the top. This is the banality of evil, cigarette division. Apparently, in the early '90s, R.J. Reyn olds (not mentioned by name in the ad) came up with a marketing plan to target homosexuals and homeless people in San Fran cisco, under the heading Operation SCUM, Project Sub-culture Urban Marketing. (Why the homeless? Are they the last American demo that is not brand loyal?)
In the spot, an overexcited guy introduces Donald, an actual New York homeless man. He reads the info straight to the camera with just the right amount of deadpan disbelief and then adds: "I'm sure they meant that in a good way."
It's a fine piece of outrage, and it's deadly-in a good way.