Tapped by the Illinois Department of Public Health to help reduce smoking among teenagers, fledgling Chicago-based ad agency Hadrian's Wall created an irreverent series of TV commercials demonstrating why cigarettes aren't cool. The campaign eventually included radio, outdoor, high school newspapers and transit ads, but the centerpiece to the anti-smoking message was "All Smoke High," a series of ads built around characters at a fictional school where all students were required to smoke. Those who rebelled were the hip ones. "We know that teenagers do not react well when told what to do and that, typically, they end up making better decisions than adults give them credit for. So we used a little reverse psychology," says Kevin Lynch, partner/writer for Hadrian's Wall and the key creative person behind A.S.H.
Adds media director Rosemary O'Connell: "It was a tongue-in-cheek approach to empower those kids who choose not to smoke."
A.S.H was an ongoing storyline. But in an effort to keep it fresh, Lynch says, he wrote 10 mini-plots, each of which had a multitude of endings and characters. To further appeal to the target audience, Hadrian's Wall elevated local teens to the level of celebrity by casting many of them as extras in the A.S.H. series.
The characters included Lighter Boy, the kid whose lighter never worked, and the Dingham Tobacco Co. representative who shows up to recruit on career day. Hadrian's managing partner Steve Carli said that according to their research, teenagers did not respond favorably to the demonization of the tobacco industry. "They know it is all about choice, so we developed the perfect foil for the tobacco industry—nothing too slanderous," he says.
The A.S.H. campaign launched as a pilot program in Rockford, Ill., in February 2001 and officially began in October 2001 to coincide with the start of the school season. In addition to Rockford, the ads played in the markets of Peoria and Champagne/Springfield and ended the following year with a half-hour finale to the series.
Noting that watching television is still the top pastime for teenagers, Hadrian's Wall spent two-thirds of the budget in TV. The remaining budget went for radio, outdoor and transit ads. The outdoor ads included local teenagers who were part of the IDPH's "I Decide" effort to curb teen smoking, but the TV portion was largely devoted to A.H.S.
The television buy for the IDPH campaign was concentrated in early fringe and prime time, to avoid exposure to younger kids who might not get the irony. The spots aired during network series including Friends, Gilmore Girls, ER and Survivor. Time was also purchased on local cable systems, on MTV, Nick-at-Nite, ESPN and TBS Superstation. The spots ran in 30-second, 60-second and two-minute increments.
"The layers of the stories and all the characters were important so that teens could watch them over and over again and see different details," Lynch says. "It created talk value."
He adds that one teen logged on to the IDPH Web site after viewing the commercials and wrote that he liked the commercials because it was clear to him that adults had little to do with their creation.
Little did the teenagers know that Hadrian's employees actually went undercover at popular teen hangouts like high school football games to get a better sense of how to effectively reach the young demographic. The employees, most of them recent college graduates and young-looking, were so convincing that the students invited them to their parties.
"If we wanted to compete with the major advertisers out there and the tobacco companies, we knew we needed a product that was just as good. The production quality was fantastic," says Tom Schafer, who was communications chief for the IDPH at the time the campaign ran. He now works for the Illinois governor's office.
To maximize the IDPH's annual $3 million marketing budget and achieve as much exposure as possible, Hadrian's Wall negotiated with local TV stations to air the ads two times as public service announcements for every single paid spot. TV stations guaranteed that the spots would not air after midnight to ensure that teenagers would indeed see them, and ran promos leading up to the campaign's premiere.
The promotion included on-air interviews with IDPH representatives and viewing parties for teenagers on the day the A.S.H. rolled out. "It was a pretty soft market after 9/11, but the stations knew that IDPH is nonprofit and did not have a lot of money to spend," says O'Connell. "Moreover, I think many of the employees at the stations had a personal attachment to the cause and knew that the message was important."
Despite peer pressure, cool images of smoking in Hollywood movies and an aggressive tobacco industry, the message got through to teenagers. According to the IDPH, there was an 11 percent reduction in cigarette use by teenagers after a six-month period—a better result than California had after 10 years of anti-teen-smoking advertising. (In Illinois, even 16 adults called the smoking-cessation unit of a local hospital the day after the campaign premiered.) "It was extremely effective and even more rewarding because the kids enjoyed the commercials, took to them and started changing," Schafer says.
Due to budget cutbacks by the state, the IDPH had to discontinue the campaign before it could be rolled out in Chicago. But if communications funding comes back, Hadrian's Wall and the IDPH expect to be working together again. Megan Larson covers cable as a senior editor for Mediaweek.