Creative: Critique

Smoke And Mirrors – In Philip Morris Ads, Health Isn’t In The Picture.
Agency: Young & Rubicam
“Being Different”
Assoc. Cd/Copywriter: Helio Gonzalez
Art Director: Alexander Kandaurov
Exec. Producer: Martha Pfeffer
Director: Jacques Ray
Production Co.: Propoganda Films
Copywriter: Erich Hartmann
Art Director: Toby Trygg
Director: Jeff Lovinger
Exec. Producer.: Martha Pfeffer
Production Co.: Lovinger/Cohn & Associates
“Who You Are”
Copywriter: Jonathan Emmerling
Art Director: Peter Herbst
Exec. Prod.: Martha Pfeffer
Production Co.: Lovinger/Cohn & Associates
Yo, call for Philip Puff Daddy. Sometimes, no matter how cynical you are, it’s hard to keep up. The $100 million Philip Morris ad campaign telling kids that smoking is not cool certainly falls into the department of cognitive dissonance, Linda Blair head-spinning division.
On the one hand, PM, marketers of the Marlboro Man and cool Marlboro Gear (remove one lung, get a red backpack free), is making an effort to look responsible.
So how can critics like me assail this mega-million-dollar effort, saying these ads won’t get kids to stop smoking, and, at the same time, blame advertising for its part in the increase in teen smoking?
Nothing is that easily reducible (and once you cross the threshold into addiction, that’s it), but I think it’s also fair to say that if the culture is already blanketed with powerful cigarette ads and symbols (rest in peace, Joe Camel), you have to fight fire with fire.
Although it’s awfully strange when the same company, Philip Morris, keeps both home fires burning. The situation reminds me of the guy who decides to cut off his arms and his legs so he can retire peacefully on disability insurance.
Naaaah, Philip Morris isn’t cutting off anything. It’s too powerful, and these ads are too tepid and generic-they could sell anything from orange juice to toothpaste. You’ve got your pierced, your dreadlocked, your huddled masses in wide-legged jeans, all yearning to breathe smoke-free-or so it would seem. Actually, health never enters into the picture here.
The issue, at least for this first round of work, is totally reduced to cool. PM is focusing, naturally, on the peer-pressure aspects, because if the tobacco giant acknowledged that advertising actually worked in getting kids to smoke, their claim about using ads merely to get established smokers to “change brands” would be cooked. Talk about burning your candle at both ends.
So PM has barely tapped the cool surface, refusing to wade in any deeper. Their atom bomb of a tagline is, brace yourself, “Think. Don’t Smoke.” The spoken lines sound like they came directly out of focus groups, earmarked for kids who were talking in front of their parents and putting on their best Eddie Haskell expressions.
Of the three spots released last week, the least lame, in terms of execution, is “Bus.” In faux-documentary style, a teenaged boy is asked by an off-camera interviewer whether he thinks kids are smoking “because other people are doing it.” This kid is such a natural (and so naturally cool) that his performance just jumps off the screen.
With his jumbled grammar, unaffected mannerisms and engaging smile, he says, “That’s a stupid reason to do anything,” and does some actorish business with the kid next to him, “I feel you, man. I feel you!”
Personally, I don’t think it’s very persuasive on the nonsmoking front, but it’s nicely performed and fun to watch, and darn if it’s not brought to us by Philip Morris. Take note: This is the first time PM has gotten its name on the air in a commercial related to cigarettes since 1971, when tobacco ads were banned.
In another spot, called “Who You Are,” a teen girl, in full Dawson’s Creek regalia, including the two little cute barrettes on either side of her hair’s middle part, stands against a window, holding her books, saying, “My parents, they only think I’m not listening. I hear ’em.” (In between listening to Miss Goody and others, there is a truly cool snippet from a girl who says, “My coolness is not on trial here.”)
Yeah, you go, sister girlfriend. That makes a lot more sense than our barrette girl’s tangled final statement, “Sometimes, it’s what you don’t do that makes you who you are.” There’s also another cut of a boy with an acoustic guitar, in mid-strum, talking to the camera. He seems right out of Jan and Dean.
The third spot, “Being Different,” shows a group of kids sittin’ around on a stairway, some barefoot, some nose-ringed, hangin’ with the Benetton nation. Their spokesteen says, “We don’t have to smoke to be different. Being ourselves is enough.”
Now, it is questionable whether any advertising by itself can persuade kids not to smoke. (I think not.) PM has chosen to create a mellow, sensitive, “rely on your good sense, son” picture. Are they serious? This is advertising covering a life-and-death issue!
So where is the big stick? The scare tactics? The hit ’em over the head with destroying your life stuff? Geez, I still remember the Reader’s Digest reprint I got in fifth grade, about the guy who had to smoke through a hole in his neck.
I’m not sure if any of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America work is truly effective, but certainly one of its recent spots is memorable and horrifying on the level of the egg frying: In it, a woman who looks beautiful on the surface ends up showing what cocaine has done to her. After taking off the wig, etc., the final act is that she removes her teeth. She looks like a beaten-up homeless person, and it’s grim.
Similarly, another showstopper was orginally created by Boston-based Arnold Communications as a PSA for the Mass. Dept. of Public Health. It shows a woman with a bloated face, explaining that she started smoking at age 10 “to look older.”
At age 24, she developed emphysema and had to have a lung removed. She’s now dependent on medicine that blows up her body and face. “I started smoking to look older, and I’m sorry to say, it worked,” she says. She’s now 26.
Perhaps it’s impossible for any nonsmoking message to come from Philip Morris, anyway. Like many other portions of this gazillion-dollar tobacco deal, it benefits lawyers-and not many others.
But certainly in future work, trying to get past the surface, to get deeper into the ritual, deeper into the dynamics of why kids smoke and get underneath what they claim might be a good start for any serious anti-smoking campaign.
To begin, PM might consider digging until it comes up with a powerful American anti-smoking signifier that could be immediately read around the world. Did someone say coughing cowboy?