Health

LIGHT(EN)ING UP

Anti-smoking lobbyists have suddenly developed a sense of humour in their fight to geids to butt out

LIANNE GEORGE August 22 2005
Health

LIGHT(EN)ING UP

Anti-smoking lobbyists have suddenly developed a sense of humour in their fight to geids to butt out

LIANNE GEORGE August 22 2005

LIGHT(EN)ING UP

Health

Anti-smoking lobbyists have suddenly developed a sense of humour in their fight to geids to butt out

LIANNE GEORGE

LAST MONTH, in an attempt to shock British youth into butting out en masse, the U.K. government unveiled a slick advertising campaign designed to subvert the deeply entrenched sex appeal of smoking. One of the ads, highlighting the link between smoking and male impotence, features a cigarette positioned suggestively between two “fingerlegs” with the tagline: “Your penis thinks you should stop smoking.” Others in the series warn young women that not only will “fags” give you yellow, “minging” teeth, but that over time, the lip-puckering required for smoking will produce an undesirable wrinkling effect, colourfully described as “cat’s bum mouth.”

Suddenly, and improbably, the anti-smoking lobby has developed a sense of humour. In North America and abroad, the movement is producing some of the most irreverent, and even borderline raunchy, advertising to ever target youth—in print, online and on TV. Last November, Ontario unveiled its “Stupid.ca” campaign, in which the act of smoking was equated with smearing oneself with dog feces. In Nova Scotia, the government launched a series of TV ads—part of its “Great Reasons to Smoke” campaign {www.sickofsmoke.com)—in which Terry and Dean, the hockey-haired hosers from the 2002 burnout movie FUBAR (F—ed Up Beyond All Recognition), wax idiotic about the social and economic benefits of tobacco usage (for instance, all of the smoke breaks land you an extra three days off a year if you add them up).

Governments and non-profits, it seems, have finally grasped something consumer advertisers have known for years—that youth are an entirely separate market and need to be addressed “in their own language.” They’ve also figured out that, for the American Pie generation, the worst fate imaginable is not pestilence or death, but looking like a schmuck in front of your friends. Coincidentally or not, the ads have dovetailed with dramatic declines in youth smoking rates.

Historically, there were two approaches to urging young people not to smoke. First were the sombre you-smoke-you-die ads— featuring foreboding music and some part of the anatomy blackened and covered with lesions—which, aside from a momentary gross-out thrill, rolled right off the backs of kids in the prime of immortality. Then there were the hyper-earnest ads in which health ministries recruited squeaky-clean pop sing-

ers (such as Candi and Luba in Health Canada’s “Break Free” campaign, circa 1985) to wag their fingers to dorky backbeats and dance on sound stages poorly disguised as gritty urban streets. Both approaches communicated the same message: adults think cigarettes are very, very bad. Which, for adolescents looking for easy ways to shock and disappoint their parents, just made smoking seem all the more attractive.

ids to butt out

British ads (left) subvert smoking’s sex appeal. The U.S. ‘Truth’ campaign (above) mocks industry health concerns and inspired Canada’s ‘Stupid.ca’ campaign.

From an advertiser’s perspective, antismoking messaging poses a particularly difficult challenge: to take something that’s been perceived as cool since well before James Dean made it a symbol of disaffected youth everywhere, and make it uncool,

even gauche. The American Legacy Foundation, a Washington-based non-profit group, pioneered the new anti-tobacco advertising with its award-winning “Truth” campaign, launched in 1998. Developed by Arnold Worldwide, a top-tier U.S. agency whose clients include Hasbro and Volkswagen, the “Truth” campaign uses dark humour to take aim at the tobacco industry itself. The underlying message: “They’re lying to you. What kind of an idiot do they take you for?” In a fake online sitcom, Fair Enough! (www.fairenough.com), actors parody smarmy tobacco executives in 60-second episodes, which are scripted with lines taken from the minutes of actual industry meetings and set to a tinny laugh track. During last year’s Super Bowl, one ad mocked the industry’s belated concession that cigarette smoking is harmful to your health by featuring a fake company that manufactures frozen treats laced with shards of glass. “At Shards O’ Glass Freezer Pops,” says the mock executive, “our goal is to be the most responsible, effective and respected developer of glass shard consumer products intended for adults.”

Youth Tobacco Survey showed declines in high school smoking of 18 per cent over the previous two years. Research in the American Journal of Public Health found that there were approximately 300,000 fewer youth smokers in the U.S. by 2002, as a direct result of the campaign.

Inspired by that success, the Ontario government, with the help of Toronto advertising agency Bensimon Byrne and youth marketing firm Youthography, did some research of its own and found that the one thing young smokers and non-smokers agree on is that smoking is stupid. The resulting “Stupid.ca” campaign-aimed at tweens and young teens before they start—was created, with the help of a youth advisory committee, to sound like kids talking to kids, so it would look completely at home wedged between two MuchMusic videos. In one ad, a youth holds

a lightning rod in the middle of a field during a lightning storm. In another, a teenage boy adorned with antlers tiptoes through the forest at the height of deer hunting season. There are no Ontario trillium logos or brought-to-you-bys to identify them as government fare.

“We deliberately chose to focus on social factors,” says health ministry spokesperson Kevin Finnerty, who admits the campaign, which includes TV, print and online components, was a little “edgy” for the government. “Our research told us that kids don’t want to hear health care messages from authority figures, but they will listen to messages about social consequences from their peers.” (Smokers’ rights groups were outraged. Nancy Daigneault, president of Mychoice.ca, criticized the government for conceiving a “demeaning and disparaging” campaign. “I hope we do not see a repeat of the incredibly offensive and repugnant ad in which smokers are portrayed as smelling like—to use the exact quote—‘dog crap’.”) Still, as in the U.S.,

“The idea is to create this new sort of brand identity around smoking,” says Mike Farrell, director of research and strategy for Youthography, “as though it’s just not something that anybody really does anymore— and you’re kind of old-school or old-fashioned by doing it.”

Ironically, just as Canada is cracking down on tobacco use, it’s showing less of an interest in marijuana consumption—and as a result, say some experts, young people are perceiving the latter as a significantly less dangerous habit. “Pot smoking,” says Farrell, “has gone up massively among youth.” fifl