There's been an almost unanimous adoption of content-based TV ratings, the better to protect kids from somebody's notion of unacceptable sex, violence and dirty talk. There's also the ongoing hearings in the tobacco settlement, which is sending Joe Camel back to the desert. He'll never entice the young into the deadly habit of smoking again.
I confess I'm eager for the tobacco issue to be settled. It's not from any motive so noble as protecting our children-I'll leave that to the politicians-but from purely scientific curiosity. The legal deal now wending its way through Washington is a bold experiment, a never-before-attempted negative test of marketing's effectiveness.
After years of worming its way around advertising restrictions that would reduce the average brand manager to despair, thereby earning itself a reputation as the world's shrewdest marketer, the tobacco industry faces its big-gest challenge: un-marketing its product.
Just as marketing has its sales goals, the un-marketing of tobacco has un-sales goals.
It's spelled out in the settlement, which calls for teen smoking to decline by 30 percent in five years, 50 percent in seven years, and 60 percent a decade from now. If those benchmarks are not reached, the tobacco companies will pay for it-as much as $2 billion in tax-deductible penalties a year.
By the time the Clinton administration gets done protecting children, however, the ante will probably be raised. Fines will be more substantial, they won't be deductible and the right to appeal them will be limited.
If a consumer desire can be created, the thinking goes, then it can be un-created.
And it will be the tobacco companies' job to un-create it.
They'll have a lot of help from the anti-smoking forces. Once tobacco's $368 billion in reparations kicks in, these activists will have hefty un-marketing budgets of their own. Anti-smoking ad campaigns, like the one now being waged aggressively in California, will be ubiquitous.
Attention ad agencies: There could be as much money in un-marketing as there is in marketing. At work is the untested strategy of "imagicide": Shut tobacco out of our clamorous cultural
conversation-unless you are going to say something bad about it-and tobacco will, in the immortal words of Karl Marx and Newt Gingrich, "wither away."
Yet in California, the war against teen smoking is not going well. Imagicide, it turns out, is not that simple. Tobacco's image is more loaded with meanings than ever before, and the anti-smoking forces are the authors of all of them.
What's a bunch of billboards and sporting events next to government initiatives, mediagenic lawsuits and a flood of incriminating documents pouring from the industry's files?
Tobacco is dangerous, forbidden, adult and, given all the anti-smoking pressure, nonconformist. This is rich material for teens, hungry for self-expression, to mine.
So guess what? Smoking among California teens is up!
It is not socially acceptable to feel sorry for the tobacco industry, even if it's being held responsible for a product image it no longer controls.
Yet I suspect that the parents of teens, if they were honest, would feel a pang of sympathy for any institution held accountable for the behavior of a 16-year-old, especially a 16-year-old who is taught that smoking isn't his fault, whether or not Joe Camel made him to do it.
It makes you wonder what our child protectors are protecting our children from.