The Consumer Republic: Truth Or Consequences

The most compelling moments in the videotape released last week by the Florida Pilot Program on Tobacco Control aren’t the new ads, but the edited excerpts from the Governor’s Teen Tobacco Summit. The conclave of Florida youngsters provided the material for the first of many teen-focused anti-smoking campaigns to be financed by settlements between the government and the tobacco industry. With its focus groups, hands-on workshops and an anti-smoking rapper for entertainment, the summit resembled a model empowerment seminar for youth, a public service “sponsored” by Philip Morris, et al. Minus the tobacco company signage, of course.
Even if you didn’t know that cigarette companies are now taboo, you could guess their moral status with one look at these kids, their fresh faces lit with the inner fire of children marching off to rescue Jerusalem from the infidel. Florida’s groundbreaking assault on smoking by young people is strictly an “of by and for the teens” affair. They have one message for concerned adults: Stay out of the effort to keep them from tobacco. Leave that task to the only authority kids respect: themselves.
Miami’s Crispin Porter & Bogusky played creative nanny to this Never-Never Land enterprise, wringing every last ounce of gritty coolness and self-conscious rebellion out of the campaign’s theme: “Their brand is lies. Our brand is truth.” One ad shoots kids against tobacco in blurry stop-action video, as if they were terrorists caught by surveillance cameras. A hooded spokesrevolutionary (later revealed to be an angelic blond girl) enunciates her generation’s demand that tobacco marketers cease targeting them, her voice electronically altered. Behind her, teens in revolt stare at the camera with the eyes of Belfast rock-throwers. You almost expect this crew to demand ransom for the life of Aldo Moro. Fortunately, all they want is for filmmakers to stop glamorizing smoking.
What is fascinating is that this communications manifesto is not only, or even primarily, directed against tobacco. It is a campaign against advertising and marketing. The message is that marketing is a conspiracy of greedy, lying adults determined to get kids to do what adults want. It’s about recognizing that business will sacrifice anything, even human life, for profit. It calls on young people to resist the deceptions of advertising. These sentiments, out of the mouths of the consumers of the future, should be alarming to every ad agency and marketer–not just the ones fingered by the pilot program’s hit list.
If no one is alarmed, it’s because the adults understand, even if the kids don’t, that the horror expressed for the evils of marketing is just pretend. Rather than marking the beginning of a revolt of the teen target market, the summit and the ads are exercises in teens targeting themselves. What’s more, they’re pretty good at it. Like pint-sized marketing executives speaking before a company meeting, they laid out the strategy at the summit: the new Web site, the upcoming candlelight march, the product line bearing the “truth” logo.
Then there’s that market-speak slogan, “Our brand is truth,” conceived by one of the teens at the summit. We can blame adults for taking a perfectly useful idea, the brand, and turning it into a reductive universal label for every person, place and thing. But the notion of “truth” as a way of appearing, as an identity badge, marks the final descent into dangerous nonsense. Defining “truth” as a consumer preference is as toxic to the welfare of teens as smoking.
If truth is your brand, then the truth about tobacco’s status in this country is no mystery. Everyone knows that cigarettes are addictive and lead to mortal illnesses. According to a recent Harper’s Index, chances are one out of three that a high school student has some article branded by a cigarette logo. But what are the chances these same young people see the no-smoking signs in millions of public places–three out of three? As surely as they read cigarette ads in Rolling Stone, they notice when a visiting uncle slinks off to the back yard on a freezing January day to light up.
Florida’s teens, meanwhile, shake their fists at the mendacity of adult image makers. But tobacco’s aura as the habit of outlaws, outsiders and danger seekers is not an image. It is a readily observable reality. Teens posing as terrorists and T-shirts emblazoned with a “truth” logo are images.
Florida’s first-of-its-kind Teen Tobacco Summit and the ads it spawned are supposed to be spunky and uplifting. I found them poignant and disturbing. It is heartbreaking to see earnest kids dress up like rebels and cry out slogans with the fervor reserved for the Port Huron Statement. Teens say they’re ready to defy marketing manipulation. But their actions show us that marketing manipulation is the only truth they know.