Ground Zero Takes Aim at Big-Tobacco Executives

The latest salvo in California’s war against smoking has come from new ads that vilify tobacco executives as smarmy, amoral fat cats who will do anything to keep people lighting up.

A pair of hard-hitting ads from Ground Zero for the California Department of Health Services sidestep health issues and take aim at Big Tobacco’s employees.

Tagged “Do you smell smoke?” the two 30-second spots look like documentaries offering a glimpse at how cigarette companies scheme to keep product moving. One presents a dramatization of an executive talking about “selling cigarettes without selling cigarettes” by sponsoring charities. The other shows a particularly smug executive discussing how the company can reach kids online, at the mall and at sporting events.

California’s anti-smoking effort is budgeted this year at $45 million.

Agency chairman Jim Smith said the ads try to address how tobacco companies “are essentially trying to change their character and the way people perceive them. They’re still using television media in a very wide way to target young people.”

The style is meant to provide a “fly-on-the-wall perspective,” said Ground Zero creative partner Court Crandall. “We wanted you to become interested in the argument and think about marketing first, then lead you along,” he said.

Explaining the tag, Smith said, “The tobacco companies use smoke and mirrors, and we’re suggesting maybe you smell smoke, and there’s no smoke without fire.”

Ads breaking later this year will likely address issues such as cessation and second-hand smoke.

Ground Zero handled the aggressive media buy, which includes high-profile programs such as the Survivor finale, ER and The West Wing.

Ground Zero, Marina del Rey, Calif., won the business last summer following a review. It is budgeted at $125 million over five years.