Commentary

Feds Launching Grisly Anti-Smoking Campaign

The federal government may have recently lost a battle over requiring that tobacco companies place graphic warnings on cigarette packs but its war on smoking took an aggressive surge forward yesterday with the Centers for Disease Control’s unveiling of a $54 million campaign targeting teenagers under the banner “Tips From Former Smokers.” 

“Don't let the rather plain name fool you,” writesAd Age’s Matthew Creamer. “The ads are straight-up horrifying, with amputations, stomata, and other cigarette-caused bodily destruction showcased by the people who have suffered. And it's not all cancer either.”

The bilingual ads will launch on television and in newspapers on Monday. Here’s one of the spots, which “really goes for the trachea,” as the headline on a Gothamiststory puts it. It features Terrie, a middle-aged woman who talks about how she gets ready for the day after treatments for her throat cancer left her with a tracheotomy and caused her to lose her teeth and hair.

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Indications are that the tobacco companies will keep a stiff upper lip against the direct hit. “We believe that adult tobacco consumers should be provided with accurate information about the risks associated with tobacco use,” R.J. Reynolds spokesman David Howard tells the New York Times without specifically referring to the new campaign, which he had not yet seen.

Some people doubt the effectiveness of “scare” advertising -– a debate that was renewed when New York City launched a similarly grisly campaign. CDC director Thomas R. Frieden says that he was himself skeptical that scaring people was effective when he was commissioner of the New York City Health Department, so the agency did some testing.

"Wherever we showed the ads the most, people stopped smoking in the greatest numbers,” he says. “It was a dose-response relationship.” 

Creamer reports that Ad Age also found that scare tactics work “for the most part.” He wrote an extensive piece on the topic in January. 

Younger people interviewed by Tom Costello for NBC Nightly News last night were somewhat blasé about the campaign that is  “designed to shock and horrify,” however.

“I really don’t see how it relates a younger person of my generation,” says one. Another responds, “A lot of people will think, ‘that’s not really going to happen to me.’” 

Those are, of course, just a couple of off-the cuff, anecdotal responses. The larger nut that anti-smoking forces have to crack is the $10 billion a year that tobacco companies still spend on marketing, as Costello reports, with its “drop-in-the-bucket” approach. But advocates say it’s a start.

“I’ve been waiting for the government to do this for 40 years,” Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids tells the New York Times’ Gardiner Harris. “Even in the tightest budget times, this is absolutely the right thing to do.”

And fear works, writes Kent Sepkowitz in The Daily Beast. “Indeed, countless studies have shown that though we are annoyed, frustrated by the intrusion, ready to change the channel -- something meaningful sinks in. In fact, such messages may have the most durable effect on behavior, an effect that extends across cities and rural areas, to young and old.”

A friend of mine who grew up on a farm in Ireland and is an avid recreational sportsman told me just the other day that he had never smoked as a lad. He credits ads by a popular soccer player of the time for making him afraid to even take a puff. 

Of course, not everyone took that message to heart, so to speak. Three three-minute spots featuring people affected by smoking -– the teenaged daughter of a man who died from lung cancer, a wife whose husband “loved his cigarettes, but never thought that at 48, that would be his time to go” and a throat cancer survivor –- broke on Irish television on New Year’s Day, according to the Irish Times.

There are about one million smokers in the republic of 4.6 million people, according the Health Service Executive, and about 5,500 Irish men and women die of a tobacco-related disease each year. Smoking is, in fact, “the single biggest cause of illness disability and death” in the country.  

There are tobacco and advertising executives who maintain that their advertisements were never intended to influence anyone to start smoking –- and such perverse thinking is not limited to the U.S. Tobacco advertising’s sole purpose, they contend, is only to convince smokers to switch brands (as in “Join the unswitchables, join Tareyton.”)   

The Irish spot featuring a man with throat cancer shows him coaching a youth soccer team as he reminisces about his own youth on the pitch. “Most people smoked in those days,” he says. “It was the cool thing to do. It was all image. I was always for image.” 

Could be that image isn’t everything after all.

2 comments about "Feds Launching Grisly Anti-Smoking Campaign".
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  1. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, March 16, 2012 at noon

    Death is the easiest part. The suffering and pain and costs that come before......

  2. A Brody from TECHmarketing, March 19, 2012 at 1:25 p.m.

    Of course it works, but on who exactly?

    If you’re talking teenagers, then they can’t possibly imagine being 50 – regardless of the danger.

    It does take away the cool - so that eliminates the kinds of smokers who once smoked “because everyone else did.” But that has already happened. 40 years ago, 45% of young males smoked. Now it's less than 25%. Not only that, but the mentality of smokers has changed too. According to the St. Louis study, smokers are 3 times as likely to suffer from some form of depression than the general population.

    So when you talk about smokers today, you are much more likely to be talking self-medication. Well, people who need medication are likely to take something - regardless of the potential side-effects.

    So yes, this works on older smokers who know they should quit and younger smokers who probably weren’t gong to smoke anyway. But everyone else?

    It might work, but what if they choose some other form of self-medication that is more destructive - and in less time. Smoking has a 20 - 40 year arc of destruction while drugs and other alternatives can do a lot more damage more quickly.

    But then these ads don’t go there which is why they are arguably a cheap shot. They also stop working once they stop running.

    To be truly effective, the anti-smoking crowd needs to get at why teens smoke in the first place and give them really good alternatives. Otherwise, they’re really singing to the choir and making some bad choices worse. And sure, they get to feel tough and really self-righteous.

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