Barbara Lippert’s Critique: The Commitments

It’s the new year, a perfect time to stop smoking—and unleash the anti–smoking ads. I’m all for the shocking, graphic approach, like the spots showing the Latino guy swabbing the hole in his throat, or the latest one demonstrating tumors growing under a decomposing chin. Those are mostly aimed at teenagers, scaring them straight into never starting. The reality, however, is that ads aimed at longtime smokers have a much tougher job. The seriously addicted puffers in the new Commit lozenge ads, for example, are middle-aged people who have homes, jobs and kids—and also happen to be heavily mortgaged to their cigs. They know all too well they should stop and are tired of hearing other people tell them their habit is disgusting.

Given this, Arnold, New York, has done something smart: it has filmed the progress of a number of smokers who are using Commit to quit, and then adapted the material for episodic use in a variety of media, such as TV spots, mobisodes and Webisodes. It might even become a documentary film.

Granted, this sort of chronicle is not as dramatic as, say, watching a meth addict who lives in squalor, has a ravaged body and face, and comes clean. The Commit “reality quitting” campaign is more like a series of upscale kitchen interventions—complete with granite counters (all the better to show the Commit cylinder) and supportive spouses. Then again, 97 percent of smokers who try to quit fail, so there’s a real need for success stories.

The work was shot by Jessica Yu, whose Oscar-winning documentary, Breathing Lessons, is a portrait of a writer in an iron lung. Yu is also behind the intimate “secret” interviews for the Dove spots, and seems to be the new go-to person for compassion and sensitivity.

The campaign so far documents “the quitting journey” of Lisa, a 36-year-old new mother who has smoked for 15 years, whose story will be shown sequentially in seven TV spots (a new one breaks each week), and Keith, a 41-year-old father who has smoked a pack and a half a day for 30 years. (That would mean he started at 11, cough.) His tale is only on commitlozenge.com.

Lisa, who has an expressive face and relatable story, deals with the daily pressures of running a small business from home and taking care of her baby. The emotion seems to come out late at night while taping herself, when she cries and seems sort of unstrung. (It feels like a cross between Trading Spouses and Starting Over.) Other bits were done by a crew, and these include shots of her gripping the Commit cylinder and demonically popping those babies into her mouth.

It turns out that the most compelling moments are when the video is obviously edited. For example, we see her driving her car with her child crying in the back. “Ava, come on, please baby,” she says. Then, in voiceover, for added punch, we get, “The baby’s really sick and I have so much work to do. The only thing pulling me through is the Commit.” The result is memorable and compelling, and seems to show why reality shows are manipulated.

One thing that does sound completely natural is that, over and over, she refers to the product as “The Commit.” And who can blame her, as “lozenge” doesn’t exactly sound like the high-tech nicotine delivery system that it is. (Rather, this particular “L” word suggests 19th century health elixirs, like tinctures or mustard-packs.) Produced by GlaxoSmithKline, Commit is the company’s newest how-to-quit smoking product, and the Web site not only explains the way it works, but also offers cool interactive tools like the quit tracker, trigger detector and cravings pacifier.

Obviously, there’s a formula to the way reality shows are shot, cut and presented (including Intervention on A&E) and this one is no exception. It’s your basic story arc: It begins with Lisa crying as she stabs out her last cigarette and then shows her alternately worrying, complaining, resisting, looking like she can’t do it, and then pulling through, to the delight of her kindly bear of a husband. She looks beatific at her daughter’s baptismal, where she says, “It’s the baby’s christening, but I feel so much cleaner myself.”

Along the way, she says things that no doubt will stick in the hearts of other mothers, like, “I pictured [my daughter] telling her friends her mommy was dead.”

With her broader appeal, I can understand why Lisa was chosen to be on TV. But my heart goes out to Keith, who’s been smoking since childhood. The Webisodes feel more like “Everybody Loves Keith”; he’s a regular guy with a touch of the poet. “I had a slip in my quit,” he tearfully recounts at one point. “It lasted four days.” Wow—a guy with the guts to admit to failing! He talks about a perfect storm of work problems he encountered and says, “I’m not Superman. I was supposed to be invincible. I told my son Hunter that I slipped, and he said it’s OK.” Later, we see the kid, who seems to be about 6 or 7, hugging his dad and saying, “Pleathe don’t smoke again.”

At the end of the episodes, we see Keith on Day 77, smoke-free, playing ball with his son. Perhaps it’s too corny or stagey an ending, but it comes across as moving. Commit users, at least, apparently have a bright side to look at—leaving the decomposing tumors for teens.