Features Archive - Respond to this Article

March 1999 - Volume 31 Issue 3


Making It Uncool
Laughter is our best weapon in the war on teen smoking
by Robert Worth

On the surface, last November's $206 billion settlement agreement between the tobacco companies and 46 states looks like a serious blow for Big Tobacco. In addition to the money, it contains some important concessions: a ban on outdoor advertising, limits on sports sponsorships and merchandising, no more "product placement" in movies, and they have to close The Tobacco Institute and other junk-science instruments. And Joe Camel - along with all other cartoon characters - is gone for good.

Yet how much did all this hurt the tobacco industry's ability to sell cigarettes? On November 20, the day the attorneys general announced the settlement, the stock of the leading tobacco companies soared. After all, the Big Four tobacco makers will pay only 1 percent of the damages (at most) directly; the rest will be passed on to smokers through higher prices. Since many states are already figuring the settlement money into their budgets, this puts them in the odd position of depending on the continued health of the tobacco industry for their roads, schools, and hospitals.

Punishing the industry, in other words, doesn't necessarily address the root of the problem - reducing demand for cigarettes. And that won't go down until we all face the fact that smoking is once again cool. When I went to high school, in the 1980s, scarcely any of my classmates smoked. My two teenage cousins claim that at least half of their friends smoke, despite a heavy barrage of anti-smoking publicity. They're not unusual: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, teen smoking rose 73 percent from 1988 to 1996.

Anti-smoking activists often behave as though the tobacco companies were entirely to blame for this fact - as though charisma were a substance like nicotine that could be injected and removed from a product at will. Sadly, that's not true. As long as movie stars like John Travolta and Uma Thurman flirt gorgeously through a haze of cigarette smoke, as long as it drifts through all the right nightclubs and bars and hang-outs - not to mention the magazines and posters and billboards - teenagers will find ways to smoke, no matter how many public service announcements or laws are written to stop them. Most of these kids know that smoking fills their lungs with toxins like arsenic, cyanide, and formaldehyde. They'll even recite the statistics to you: Smoking kills over 1,000 people a day in this country alone, and is far deadlier, in terms of mortality rates, than any hard drug. And then they'll blow their smoke into your face. "Kids can't imagine themselves old," says Stanton Glantz, an anti-smoking activist and professor at the University of California at San Francisco. "Health effects mean almost nothing to them."

The only way to get any leverage with teenagers is to return fire with fire, taking on the various influences that make smoking seem attractive. We need, in other words, to find new ways to make smoking look ridiculous.

As it happens, we have some clues about how to do that. Flash back to the 1960s, when cigarette ads were as common on television as they are now on billboards or bus-stops. If you ask any man in his 40s or older about the tobacco ads of that day, he'll almost certainly remember one series in particular: the Marlboro Man ads. Set to the music from the great Western "The Magnificent Seven," they brought the celebrated smoking cowboy to life as he roped calves in a gold and red-hued western sunset. They conjured up the untrammeled masculinity of the cowboy myth so masterfully that few who ever saw them have forgotten them. And their message was unmistakable: Real men smoke.

Then, in 1968, another ad appeared on television. This one began with a cowboy standing in a darkened saloon, watched by a low-life villain with a gun (and a cigarette in his mouth). Another gunslinger enters, a cigarette hanging from his lips. "We figured you'd be here," he tells the hero. The bad men are on the verge of gunning the hero down, when one of them begins to wheeze. Soon both of them are doubling over in coughing fits, and the hero strolls past them, unharmed, out of the saloon. The words "American Cancer Society" appear on the screen, and the announcer intones "Cigarettes - they're killers."

This ad may seem laughably unsophisticated to the current generation of media-soaked teenagers, but in its day it managed to make the Marlboro Man ads look utterly ridiculous. And along with a group of similarly inspired antismoking ads that ran at the same time, it appears to have had a measurable effect. Starting in 1967, when the anti-smoking ads first aired on television, and ending in 1970, when they went off, per capita cigarette consumption dropped four years in a row - something that had not happened since the turn of the century. Naturally, there were other reasons for this decline, but researchers tend to agree that the ads were a powerful factor. They also permeated the culture in ways that can't be quantified, making people less likely to associate cigarettes with glamour. In Hollywood movies, where smoking had been de rigeur for decades, cigarettes disappeared like the hats from mens' heads. Only 29 percent of movie characters smoked in the 1970s, according to Stanton Glantz - less than half as many as before or since.

That's why the best thing in last November's settlement may be its creation of a national foundation, funded at $25 million a year, designed to "Develop, disseminate, and test the effectiveness of counter advertising campaigns." If we can use that money to create an ad campaign as powerful as the one that aired three decades ago, we just might kill the Marlboro myth for good.

Equal Time
The first great antismoking ad campaign began on Thanksgiving Day 1966, when a young lawyer named John Banzhaf III was watching a football game. A cigarette ad came on - probably for Marlboros. It showed "handsome, rugged men confidently smoking cigarettes in an outdoor western setting. It implied that any man who wanted to be truly masculine should smoke cigarettes." It made Banzhaf mad, and he decided to "do whatever I could to wipe out those evil commercials." He chose as his weapon the Federal Communications Commission's now-defunct Fairness Doctrine, which held that when covering controversial topics broadcasters had to give time to opposing views. It had never been applied to commercials before, but the FCC ruled in Banzhaf's favor. By 1967 broadcasters were airing one anti-smoking ad for every four cigarette ads, on prime time television.

Most of the ads were produced by the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association, and they were so good that the tobacco industry began to panic. "The opinion of many top-level tobacco people," one former tobacco executive told a reporter in 1969, "is that as things stand they'd just as soon have cigarette commercials banned if by that they could in effect get the anti-smoking commercials banned, too." When it became clear that smoking rates were indeed dropping, the tobacco chiefs asked Congress to ban them from television, much against the will of the broadcasters, who stood to lose hundreds of millions of dollars a year. (The tobacco companies didn't want to withdraw voluntarily, because that might confer a market advantage on those who stayed.) The industry figured that once those pesky counter-ads were gone the decline in smoking would stop. They were right.

They were clever too, because cigarettes didn't really disappear from television. With all the money they saved on ads (close to $800 million a year in current dollars), the tobacco companies managed to make sure that major sports events would occur against the backdrop of a massive cigarette ad. They sponsored tennis tournaments and drag races; they poured ads into newspapers and magazines; they papered highways and inner cities with untold acres of billboards. They crafted new brands to specific demographics - Eve, Misty, and Capri for women, following the 1968 launch of Virginia Slims; Uptown and Kool for blacks; American Spirit for native Americans.

By the 1980s, the tobacco industry was reclaiming Hollywood with a full-court effort to "place" their products in movies. One of the documents uncovered in Minnesota's suit against the industry last year made this particularly graphic, stating that "product was supplied" by Phillip Morris for more than 190 movies between 1978 and 1988. The company calls them "donations," and it's true that no records of payment were ever found. But if that's true, why did the same company shell out $350,000 to place Lark cigarettes in the James Bond film "License to Kill" in 1988?

Movie industry spokesmen claim that product placement hasn't happened since 1990, and last November's settlement explicitly forbids it. And it should be said that Hollywood directors are far more likely to be slaves to fashion than to the tobacco industry. But whatever the reason, by the mid-1990s, Hollywood movies were once again filled with smoke. According to the American Lung Association, in 133 top movies produced in 1994 and 1995, 82 percent of the lead or supporting characters smoke.

When challenged about their use of cigarettes in films, directors tend to offer the excuse that smoking is sometimes necessary to build character. If that's true, why wasn't it the case in the 1970s? After all, that decade produced some of the greatest movies of recent times. In some popular movies of the past few years, the smoking seems laughably gratuitous. Couldn't James Cameron have found a more interesting way of manifesting Leonardo DiCaprio's rebelliousness in "Titanic" than by having him smoke like a chimney? In "My Best Friend's Wedding" Julia Roberts chain-smokes despite the fact that she's playing a food critic. Many of these directors aren't really worried about building character; they're just plain lazy.

Actors and directors also tend to downplay their influence over kids. "I don't apologize for smoking onscreen," Winona Ryder told USA Today last year. "It should be our choice, and I don't think we influence people to smoke." Maybe so. But consider: The Ray Ban company saw 55 percent gains after Tom Cruise donned a pair of their sunglasses in "Risky Business." Sales of "Reese's Pieces" candy jumped 65 percent after they appeared in Stephen Spielberg's blockbuster "E.T." Why should cigarettes be any different?

Up in Smoke
In fairness to Hollywood, the anti-smoking movement itself probably deserves some of the blame for recent increases in teen smoking. Like so many social crusaders before them, they've occasionally lapsed into self-righteousness - thereby inviting teens to take up cigarettes as the torch of fashionable rebellion. They have supported laws that allow police to arrest and fine teenagers caught with cigarettes - a foolish strategy that blames the young smoker instead of the marketers. They have encouraged businesses to discriminate against smokers. They have lobbied to have cigarettes regulated like hard drugs, or even banned outright - thereby demonstrating that they've learned nothing from the War on Drugs, or, for that matter, from the great failed experiment in temperance that began in 1919. "They have become prohibitionists," says Dr. Alan Blum, a Baylor physician who is one of the greatest and most clear-eyed anti-smoking activists. In the process, they've only hurt themselves - because once you start acting like Miss Watson you cast smokers in the role of Huckleberry Finn.

The tobacco companies, never slow to learn a PR lesson, have worked hard in recent years to dress their product as forbidden fruit. They've supported laws that allow police to arrest and fine teenagers caught with cigarettes, and promised not to oppose them as part of last November's settlement. And they've launched massive campaigns that are designed, supposedly, to combat teen smoking. The new $100 million Phillip Morris campaign, which had its television launch in December, is titled "Think, Don't Smoke," and it focuses on persuading teens to resist peer pressure.

Think? Resist peer pressure? This is a little like marketing chastity belts; you create an incentive where there may not have been one. The truth is that most teenagers don't feel much peer pressure to smoke, because the majority of teens don't do it. But with the tobacco companies telling them they've got to exercise massive self-restraint in order to not smoke, well, hey - maybe it's worth trying after all.

The R.J. Reynolds anti-smoking campaign is equally disingenuous. It's true, as one RJR spokesman told me, that they've mailed out half a million "We Card" kits to retailers. But the premise of the campaign - that parents should simply tell their children not to smoke - is absurd. "We have a unit on how to talk to your kids about smoking even if you do smoke," the spokesman told me.

Ultimately, this message is just a subtler form of marketing. "When I was a kid it was "Lucky Strike separates the men from the boys,'" the great anti-smoking ad writer Tony Schwartz told me. "Now [the tobacco companies] tell people 'Kids shouldn't smoke, that's for adults.' Isn't the message the same?" Ironically, the very first television anti-smoking commercial, which Schwartz created in 1963, hit this theme. The ad featured a pair of children dressing up in their parents' clothes - long white dress for the girl, suit and top hat for the boy, and posing in front of a mirror. "Children love to imitate their parents," the announcer says. "Children learn by imitating their parents. Do you smoke cigarettes?"

This ad, which ran frequently during the late '60s, is often cited as one of the great PR successes of that era. Unfortunately, it doesn't answer the question of how to reach kids themselves.

Mocking Word
How, then, to persuade teenagers not to pick up the habit? There's no single formula, says Jeff McKenna, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Office of Smoking and Health, which tracks anti-smoking efforts and their effectiveness. But the best approach seems to be the one that worked back in the late '60s: satire. California, which funds anti-smoking commercials with the proceeds of a 25-cent cigarette surtax passed in 1988, has led the way in this area. One of their recent ads features a group of dapper young men in tuxes who light their cigarettes as a gorgeous young woman walks in. As the announcer tells us about the link between smoking and impotence, their cigarettes suddenly go limp - and the woman looks mockingly at them and walks away. "Cigarettes," the announcer says. "Still think they're sexy?"

Direct satires of the tobacco industry have also been touted as a way to persuade kids that smoking isn't as rebellious as they may think. "What we've found is that when kids understand they're being manipulated by the industry, it takes the desirability of the rebellion away," says Colleen Stevens, who directs the California Health Department's antismoking media campaign. The first and most celebrated ad in the California television campaign hit this theme hard. It shows a smoky boardroom full of tobacco executives, one of whom announces: "Gentlemen, gentlemen, the tobacco industry has a very serious multi-billion dollar problem - [e]very day 2,000 Americans stop smoking and another 1,100 also quit. Actually, technically, they die. That means this business needs 3,000 fresh volunteers every day. So forget about all that heart disease, cancer, emphysema, and stroke stuff. We're not in this business for our health." Another ad simply showed footage of tobacco industry executives testifying before Congress that they believed tobacco was not addictive. The words "under oath" flash on the screen during the testimony, and as the ad closes the announcer intones: "Now the tobacco industry is trying to tell us that second hand smoke isn't dangerous."

More recently, other states have followed California's lead. Massachusetts, which passed its own cigarette surtax in 1992, ran an ad featuring Victor D. Noble, a scientist who did important work on the health risks of smoking, telling the camera how the tobacco industry shut him down. Another shows Victor Crawford, a former tobacco lobbyist, confessing "I lied." Other ads feature a cancer-victim singing "Happy Birthday" to the tobacco industry through his throat-hole; a child smoking, accompanied by the legend "They knew. They always knew"; and a quote from an RJR draft memo suggesting that warning labels on cigarette packs could actually be an enticement to kids. Last year Florida used the money from its own separate settlement with the industry to establish a campaign directed by teenagers. Designated the "Truth" campaign, it is explicitly targeted at the tobacco industry's alleged manipulation of kids.

It's too early to tell how effective these efforts will be, but the early signs from California - the longest-running campaign - are good. Since it began, teen smoking in California has remained stable, even as it shot up in the rest of the country. The overall effect has been even more striking: Cigarette consumption has declined by 38 percent, or more than twice as much as the 16 percent decline in the rest of the country. Although the Massachusetts campaign is younger, it appears to have been effective too; teen smoking rates have risen far less than in the rest of the country.

Both states are quick to point out that media campaigns aren't everything; they've also worked hard to restrict smoking in public places, and to create education and community programs. Still, the power of the ads can be measured by what happened when they went off the air in California. Soon after the ad featuring the Congressional tobacco testimony first appeared, R.J. Reynolds threatened to sue both the state department of health services and the stations that aired it. The health department stood firm, and Reynolds backed down. But Gov. Pete Wilson (who's been described in internal Phillip Morris documents as "tobacco-friendly") pressured the department to stop running its anti-industry satires. He also insisted that the health department not use the words "lies" or "tobacco industry" in any of its ads, and he began to drain off the money allocated for the antismoking campaign for other purposes. Soon afterward, cigarette consumption began to rise, and youth smoking rates climbed nearly 20 percent.

Putting it Out
These campaigns represent a promising start. But as the California example suggests, they're vulnerable to political meddling. At the national level too, the tobacco industry, with typical agility, has found a way to undermine them. Buried deep in last November's settlement agreement is a clause stating that the money spent on anti-smoking ads through a national foundation created by the settlement for that purpose shall be used "only for public education and advertising regarding the addictiveness, health effects, and social costs related to the use of tobacco products and shall not be used for any personal attack on, or vilification of, any person (whether by name or business affiliation), company, or governmental agency, whether individually or collectively."

In other words, the settlement bars the kinds of ads that have been so successful in California and Massachusetts. The restriction isn't watertight - it only applies to the foundation created by the settlement, and states could use other funds to pay for anti-smoking campaigns. But that's not likely, given that the foundation is slated to get $25 million a year for education and media purposes. And many states have already made it clear that they intend to use the rest of the money to fill gaps in their budgets. New York City plans to use its share to clean up public schools, Los Angeles wants to repair its sidewalks, Louisiana will reduce the state debt, and Kentucky may use some of its money to help ailing tobacco farmers. Many of these states may find themselves running toothless anti-smoking campaigns - which is precisely what the tobacco industry wants. "If you want to see a recipe for failure, look at the settlement," says Stan Glantz.

That's why the states should take a second look at what really works when it comes to cutting back on smoking, and renegotiate or find a clear way around the restriction on attack ads. The federal lawsuit of the tobacco companies - which Clinton announced in his State of the Union speech - could provide another angle of attack. For starters, Clinton and the state attorneys general could point out that one of the stated purposes of the anti-smoking foundation created by November's settlement is to figure out which ads work best, regardless of their content. If attacking the industry proves consistently to be the best way to cut teen smoking rates, then there's no reason not to do it.

But most of all, we need to find new ways to make the truth about smoking come alive - and that means bringing the best minds on Madison Avenue to bear on the problem. It shouldn't be so hard: This is the generation reared on Monty Python, Wacky Packs, and Mad and Spin magazines. If we can make cigarettes seem laughable, we just might provide an example for countries like China, where 70 percent of men smoke and one in three is projected to die of smoking-related diseases within the next few decades. After all, once you reach that point it's almost too late for laughter. As one Adbusters satire of the short-lived Dakota cigarette brand put it: "Dakota. Dacough. Dacancer. Dacoffin."

Robert Worth
is a Managing Editor for The Washington Monthly


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