Anti-tobacco ads stir protest, but creatives carry on
Two agencies are waiting to exhale.
The battleground: network TV. The American Legacy Foundation doesn't want kids to smoke, but getting that message out isn't easy. Teen advisers were consulted, and they told Legacy to create ads that slam the tobacco industry. Creatives at Arnold Communications and Crispin Porter & Bogusky rose to the challenge, producing work that was provocative and hard-hitting. It was also canceled.
Despite research showing teens responded to blunt, explicit messages, Legacy, under pressure from the networks and Michael Easley, the attorney general of North Carolina, caved in.
The agencies didn't.
Last week, two new Crispin ads, "Rid-a-Zit" and "Tru-Ride" broke on UPN. The first resembles an acne commercial. Three girls sample a pimple cream. The first two try it, but the third bursts into flames. Fire sirens blare and the following message appears: "Only one product actually kills one-third of the people who use it. Tobacco."
Similarly, "Tru-Ride" spoofs a rental car spot. The usual information is given to passengers; the third driver turns the key in the ignition and the car blows up.
"No one notices that a third of the people who become smokers actually die from a tobacco-related illness," says Dave Clemons, an art director at Miami-based Crispin. "We wanted to communicate how crazy that fact is. In a parody, maybe people would pay more attention."
Ironically, the tobacco companies did--and they cried foul. No word yet on Easley's reaction to the UPN-aired spots, but earlier ads from Arnold in Boston, "Body Bag" and "Lie Detector," were yanked by Legacy prior to a network airing. (They did, however, have a brief run on cable.) Easley claimed the spots violated a clause in the tobacco settlement that prohibits Legacy ads from vilifying tobacco companies.
The brouhaha began in early February, when Crispin's parody ads for the $150-225 million national anti-smoking campaign broke--and the major networks saw red. Advertising review execs from the networks' broadcast and standards departments decided the Crispin spots unfairly compared safe products, such as sneakers and soft drinks, to the hazardous tobacco.
Shortly thereafter, Arnold's ambush-style ads, mostly filmed at Philip Morris headquarters in New York, got an equally negative reaction from the major nets, which deemed them "morbid" and refused to air them.
The Big Three were soon joined by Fox; to cap the controversy, PM threatened legal action. Within three days of their cable debut, the spots were pulled by Legacy.
The irony? "This advertising works," says Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. "What you need to say to kids is you can't trust these people because they lie."
"The issue of whether to smoke is way down on the list of priorities for teens," says Alex Bogusky, a Crispin partner and creative director. "They have violence in schools, sex. We are trying to elevate the issue."
While Arnold took a raw, in-your-face approach, Crispin relied on four product parody ads, including "Splode" and "H-Bomm," as a way to educate teens. Yet the agency's quest is becoming quixotic at best.
Their inauspicious opening act has left the creative brains at each shop frustrated and angry. "I am out of my mind," says Pete Favat, Arnold creative director.
"These are ideas that kids had about ways they felt would be effective in the fight against smoking," laments Favat. "Now the industry is [claiming] we stepped over the line. We are not lying about anything."
In fact, the opposite is true: The attack ads hit a nerve. "Lie Detector" opens with the line, "Inside a major tobacco company." Two teen actors wearing hidden cameras march into the lobby of Philip Morris. They want to administer a lie detector test to a marketing department rep to discover the truth about whether nicotine is addictive. The camera records them being escorted out of the building by PM employees whose faces are digitized to protect their identities.
A second spot, "Body Bag," features three trucks pulling up in front of the same building. The copy reads, "Outside a major tobacco company," appears. More than a dozen teens unload 1,200 body bags stuffed with recycled paper. The point: Tobacco kills 1,200 people each day.
These spots aren't the only casualties in the war against smoking. Two more spots, "Shredder" and "Hypnosis," have yet to run. Now that the ads have become embroiled in the politics of America's smoking wars, insiders say they probably won't air.
"Shredder" portrays teens using a giant wood chipper disguised as a paper shredder to destroy tobacco industry documents in mock imitation of allegations that cigarette companies destroyed internal memos admitting smoking causes cancer.
In "Hypnosis," kids drive a van through neighborhoods where they think tobacco executives live. Loudspeakers on the van's roof blare messages that encourage the officials to find other work because selling cigarettes is a bad idea.
"The kids wanted to take it back to the source," says Annie Finnegan, a senior copywriter at Arnold. "They want to say things in a way that will make a big stir."
The Arnold team did its best to oblige. Permits for "Body Bag" and "Lie Detector" were obtained before the January shoot, and the camera crew avoided company property. Actors were told that although the PM lobby is a public place, they had to leave if requested to do so. Moreover, to avoid vilifying a particular company, PM's name is not mentioned in the final ads.
Still, PM set up its own camera, carefully recording everything that happened that day. "I would love to see that tape," Favat said. "We have nothing against the people at PM. We are just trying to get the message out about what the truth is."
The work was under a tight deadline. Mad River Post, a New York editing firm, had two days to trim 150 hours of raw footage, taken from eight to 10 hidden cameras per shoot.
While the Arnold team shivered in New York's eight-degree weather, Crispin's creatives shot the product parody spots in balmy Los Angeles. One spot parodies a soft-drink commercial, with bungee jumpers leaping off a bridge to reach a can of "Splode" soda sitting on a rock below. Two jumpers sail through their plunges with no mishaps, but the third explodes the moment he picks up the can. The tagline is the same as in "Zit" and "True-Ride."
"We wanted to show a death and still keep it entertaining," says Crispin copywriter Steve O'Connell, who says the ads depict the most shocking way to kill people without being gruesome. "It was a cool, sensible way to send someone to their demise."
Jason Chase, 17, a teen campaign adviser who watched the "Body Bag" shoot, considers the controversy only a temporary setback. "The truth is still out there," he says.
Favat would agree. Giving teenagers a sense of control is what "Body Bag" and "Lie Detector" are all about, Favat adds. He's down, but not out. Both Arnold and Crispin are currently preparing another round of ads but decline to discuss specifics.
Still, Favat issues this warning: "Anybody out there involved in selling tobacco to kids, whether it's Hollywood movies or fashion magazine ads, we are going to come knocking." For Favat, it's personal. "We sold the lie for so long and just took the money," Favat says, "Now we want to make the ad industry right.