Smoking Kills and That’s the Truth

Becoming your own person—someone who is different than your parents—is a natural and necessary part of growing up. This can create problems, especially when parents or their in-locus-parentis representatives try to give guidance. Say “don’t do this,” and chances are that “this” is exactly what your teen will do.

Take smoking. Everyone knows that smoking is bad. But when it comes to the teen years, the natural need to rebel can make kids either “forget” the facts or embrace the dangers precisely because adults counsel against them.

In light of this, what are the chances that adult-sponsored anti-smoking campaigns can succeed? Statistics suggest the chances are slim to none: though smoking among teenagers has declined since 1997, 20 percent still use tobacco. One in five—that’s a lot.

One anti-smoking campaign we’ve been watching in recent years is The Truth.

Designed as a teen-based activist campaign to expose tobacco industry abuses, the Truth campaign includes print and TV advertising, a website, and the Truth van’s live city-to-city tour. But does it work?

To test whether or not a communication works, you first have to ask what it hopes to accomplish. Traditional public health ads aim to convince kids not to smoke. Truth shares that goal. No surprise. The surprise comes in the messaging hierarchy, which leads to critical questions about messaging:

You can send only three messages. What are you going to say? Which message comes first, which second, and which third?

Traditional campaigns use “It’s bad, don’t do it,” “healthy is cool,” and “cigarettes kill” in various combinations. Truth replaces these with “tobacco companies are bad,” “you can change the world,” and “being an anti-smoking activist is cool.” It tells teens to take command of their own destinies and work against bad adults. That’s a message the 13-going-on-30 set should take much better.

Truth points out how tobacco companies manipulate advertising to entice young people—very young people—to buy their products. They expose big tobacco’s attempts to manipulate government, withhold scientific and medical evidence, and mislead the public. When they talk about individuals who smoke, they talk about how hard it is to quit, how addictive tobacco is, and what the manufacturers do to make their products more addictive. It’s not the smoker—potentially, you—who is bad, but the products, promoters, and purveyors.

Instead of brewing rebellion against the adults who sponsor the ads, this approach brews rebellion against the kind of large corporations young people already mistrust.

So far, so good. in fact, so far, so excellent. But I detect a flaw. In some respects, the campaign lies.

The visual language is grungy and unprofessional, as though the material was produced by high schoolers using small donations instead of by professionals using government money. The print ads use un-retouched, un-styled photography, snapped fast to mimic surveillance or reportage pictures. The information is laid out to look like evidence organized by amateur detectives, complete with pinned-on notes and orange threads that connect the statements in a logical sequence. Truth’s TV ads use hand-held videography of real people on real streets, being challenged in smart guerrilla theater actions by volunteer youths in activist dress. But the theater is written and directed—and volunteers are selected—by adult supervisors. Adults are clearly in control of this “grass-roots” effort.

This is a standing problem. How do you use the language of your target market without coming off as an imposter? Your audience knows that you are not them. So, though this design language is very well executed, very hip, and rings true, it could backfire. Kids know adults may feel, once again, manipulated. On the web site, for instance, there's a section for letters from readers and responses from Truth. The letters are real, misspellings and all, but in the replies adult authority asserts itself-in a kind of kid-speak some may find offensive:

“QUESTION: Who pays for your commercials and your Truth campaign, I heard it was the cigarette companies. Is this the TRUTH????”

“ANSWER: Truth does not answer to any tobacco company.”

Hmmmm. I smell evasion. Let’s see how they get out of this.

“Truth is funded by the American Legacy Foundation—an independent, public health organization created in 1999.”

“Basically, 46 states got together and sued the tobacco companies to make up for some of the cost of caring for sick smokers. Instead of going to trial, the tobacco companies settled out of court to pay the states a certain amount of money, and the states then funded the American Legacy Foundation with a very small part of their money...”

A better answer might have been: “Yes. But it wasn’t their idea. The money comes from lawsuits against big tobacco?”

Other responses sound defensive, or even rejecting. One young lady wrote that she would like to be “apart” of Truth; another asked if the Truth truck will be coming to her town, so she can join in the guerrilla theater. Both were told “no,” in such terms as: “Sometimes we don’t know where we’re going to be doing things until just days before. We’re kooky that way. Still, who knows? Maybe one day you’ll be enjoying a nice milky milkshake with your buds down at the galleria food court and we’ll be there.”

It’s too bad that the language is pandering. Kids will feel that. Instead of trying to make it seem that Truth’s programs are being produced by activist teens, it might be more effective to acknowledge that adults are running the show.

Maybe they could present the evidence in a more grown-up way: take steady-cam footage of the people who do the research as they present their findings? Use a factual, scientific visual language in print ads?

Better yet, the organization should encourage these kids to run their own activist events, and turn the campaign into a real grass-roots movement. They might use some of the get-involved material Howard Dean famously put on his website: planning tools for meet-up parties, house parties, and other events in your own town, with downloadable rally signs and ordering pages for buttons, stickers, and other wearable gear. How cool would it be to have kids all over the country wearing anti-tobacco tee-shirts and caps? Truth could even sponsor contests for kids to design graphics, write slogans, and script guerrilla-theater events.

Truth’s expose-the-bad-adults strategy is smart as heck. The fact that they focus on violators rather than victims is eminently practical-nip it in the bud. Their taking-it-to the streets concept is brilliant. You just can't help but wish they’d take it all the way.

About the Author:

Nancy Bernard, former managing editor of Critique magazine, has been an illustrator, packaging designer, and brand consultant. She is now a freelance journalist, marketing copywriter in all media, and author.