Marketers Say Big Tobacco’s Court-Mandated Anti-Smoking Ads Are Too Little, Too Late

New 'corrective statements' began airing this weekend

The Truth Campaign's "Business or Exploitation?" campaign.
Headshot of Lindsay Rittenhouse

Some portion of the American population may have been shocked this Thanksgiving weekend to see anti-smoking ads from the big tobacco companies themselves: R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, Altria and its Philip Morris USA subsidiary.

But most consumers probably didn’t see them at all.

“They made an ad they hoped no one would see,” Truth Initiative CEO Robin Koval told Adweek.

Koval said Truth, and its agency of record 72andSunny, are working to remedy this.

After a long legal battle with the Justice Department that first started in 1999, the aforementioned tobacco companies finally agreed last month on the format and wording of their five “corrective statements” clarifying the dangers of smoking. Under the agreement, on Friday, the companies began airing ads in prime-time TV slots on CBS, NBC and ABC in addition to running full-page ads in major print newspapers such as The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

The ads—which consist of laundry lists of facts on the dangers of smoking, recited with no imagery or hint of emotion—are intended to counter some of the deceptive messaging the tobacco industry has admittedly communicated to American consumers for more than 50 years, like downplaying the risks of smoking and not disclosing that cigarettes are designed to be highly addictive.

In 2006, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that tobacco companies had lied, misrepresented and deceived Americans with their advertising tactics and forced them to issue these “corrective statements” as part of a permanent injunction to restrict them from further duping consumers. Years of appeals delayed the statements, and critics now say tobacco companies are facing a relatively outdated penalty.

“First and foremost, I’m happy that, after much delay, we finally have the tobacco industry doing what the judge wanted them to do [in 2006],” Koval said. “That being said, it is important to put it into context. We have an entirely different landscape now than when this case was originally brought and even decided on in 2006.”

In other words, these ads on prime-time TV and in print papers will most likely miss the young people who the tobacco companies target most aggressively, according to Koval.

Koval said Truth and 72andSunny are working to bring the tobacco companies’ messages to digital and social platforms to “make sure” the mobile-driven, Netflix-watching population of the U.S. sees them. She did not detail exact plans, but the organization has already begun distributing PSAs on social media.

Regarding its future plans, Koval pointed to a recent campaign, “Business or Exploitation?” (seen below), as an example of what to expect. In the campaign, Truth released a series of videos and posts showing how big tobacco corporations target African Americans, low-income communities, LGBTQ people, members of the U.S. Military and those dealing with mental health disorders. The group estimated that 40 percent of the cigarettes sold in the U.S., totaling about $37 billion, were to people with either mental health or substance abuse issues.

Koval estimated that the tobacco industry spends about $8 billion a year, or $24 million per day, on marketing. The “corrective statements” will likely only cost a total of $30 million, according to Truth.

In an interview with Adweek, Daniel Jaffe, group executive vice president of government relations at the Association of National Advertisers, said he does not foresee this ruling against the tobacco companies having a profound affect on the advertising industry.

Jaffe said it is too early to predict all or any of the impacts it may have on the industry but projected it would not create “broad” change or lead to further action. Major ad agencies still work to promote tobacco: Leo Burnett and Havas count Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds among their clients, respectively.

Spokespeople for both agencies declined to comment for this story.

“We remain committed to aligning our business practices with society’s expectations of a responsible company. This includes communicating openly about the health effects of our products, continuing to support cessation efforts, helping reduce underage tobacco use and developing potentially reduced-risk products,” Murray Garnick, Altria evp and general counsel, said in a statement last month.

Garnick wrote that the tobacco industry “has changed dramatically over the last 20 years,” claiming that is has become one of the most-regulated industries in the country, especially since becoming compliant with the Food and Drug Administration in 2009.

Still, cigarettes directly account for 480,000 deaths a year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The group also attributes 41,000 annual deaths to secondhand smoke.

@kitten_mouse Lindsay Rittenhouse is a staff writer at Adweek, where she specializes in covering the world of agencies and their clients.