Ad Report Card: Tobacco, Smoked

In an ad-driven consumer culture, it’s only natural that some anti-consumer expression should take the form of advertising. One popular target of such anti-ads is, not surprisingly, cigarettes. There are your basic public-service announcements, of course, but that’s not exactly what I’m talking about: The anti-ad tends to be a bit more aggressive, and often makes direct use (or directly parodies) the form and language of regular ads.

A recent batch of such ads–some of which were shown during the Olympics, attracting a fair amount of attention–has been produced under the rubric the Truth.  The Truth’s Web site describes it as a campaign “developed by teens,” with help from ad agencies and funding from a nonprofit called the American Legacy Foundation, which was formed after the Master Settlement Agreement between the big tobacco companies and the states. Money from that settlement is what funds the American Legacy Foundation, and so it’s actually Big Tobacco itself that is paying for these particular ads. To see the spots discussed below, you can go to this page on the Truth’s site and click on the individual ads; you’ll need Quicktime.

It’s worth mentioning that these are not the only biting anti-ads under the sun. At the Web site of a journal called Adbusters, which takes a dim view of commercial culture in general, there’s a selection of “uncommercials,” also viewable with Quicktime, and some pointed anti-tobacco print advertisements featuring Joe Chemo, a version of Joe Camel withered away by the effects of cancer treatment. (These ads have had a harder time finding their way into the real world. And I think it’s fair to say that if tobacco companies were still significant clients of the networks, it would’ve been a whole lot harder to get the Truth’s ads on the air.)

The Ads: The most aggressive spot is titled “Body Bag.” The opening shot is of a corporate office building on Park Avenue. It’s Philip Morris’ headquarters, although a  screen caption simply reads: “Outside a major tobacco company.” A truck labeled “Truth” pulls up, and a team of young people open up the back and begin hauling body bags–which are labeled “Body  Bag,” and clearly contain something that is the approximate size and heft of a human corpse–out onto the street. “Excuse me!” the ringleader barks into a bullhorn, at the suits inside Tobacco HQ. “Do you know how many people tobacco kills every day?” More and more body bags pile up on the streets, as the suits peer down remotely.  Soon there is a snowdrift of corpses. “You know what?” says the ringleader. “We’re gonna leave this here for you, so you can see what 1,200 people actually look like.”

In another ad, titled “Cowboys,” a few good-looking young people tramp through a remote western setting that is unmistakably meant to suggest Marlboro Country. There’s a bunch of horses here, and the kids begin slinging huge black bags across the animals’ bare backs. The bags are, of course, the body bags again. The horses are shooed off, and they tear across the picturesque desert, hauling their corpses. One of the young people holds a sign: “What if tobacco companies told the truth?”

Finally there’s a commercial called “Name Tags.” The focus is on “Hello My Name Is” tags being filled in with phrases like “Profit Margin,” “Increased Revenue,” and “Potential Customer.” An off screen voice, apparently belonging to a young woman, says: “Hello, big tobacco. We just wanted to introduce ourselves. But we figure there’s no reason to use our real names.” Teen-agers are shown affixing the tags to their chests. “After all, this is how you see us anyway.” She pauses. “Well, here’s a new one for you.” A tag is shown with the label, “Your Worst Nightmare.”

The Message: Obviously the message is an anti-smoking one, but what makes the ads different from standard public-service announcement fare is the explicit effort to undercut tobacco companies and their advertising imagery. There’s a big difference between a large pile of “dead bodies,” and a large pile of “dead bodies” in front of a Philip Morris building. It’s an interesting strategy, in a way: If your goal is to get kids to wise up about the harmful effects of smoking, will it help to try to get them to see the makers of cigarettes as cold, indifferent, and manipulative–to see them as soulless corporations? The soulless corporation isn’t an idea that has as much cultural pop as it did once upon a time, now that so many people own mutual funds that depend on soulless share prices. But it’s possible that younger people might be more open to this new gambit in the anti-smoking crusade. Certainly it’s worth a shot.

The Grade: On the other hand, the ads come very close to the line of being merely shrill and preachy, just one more voice trying to sway the minds of teen-agers by using some imagined facsimile of their media-wise worldview. But I don’t think the spots cross the line, and in fact they seem to achieve a more authentic tone than a lot of advertising aimed at young people. Certainly they work a good deal more effectively than Big Tobacco’s recent foray into forgiveness marketing. So. I’ll give these an A-minus, and look forward to seeing where the Truth’s campaign goes from here.