Varnish Remover

Joe Camel’s Kids

FDA Rule, produced by J. Brian Smith of Smith & Harroff Inc. for the National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids.

FDA Rule takes a leaf out of the tobacco industry’s pouch: It targets kids. Capitalizing on a truth that has long stabilized cigarette marketing and sales–namely, that if you’re going to hook new smokers, you have to catch ‘em young–it is one of several spots, some more controversial than others, that attack smoking. And while there is no concrete proof that anti-smoking advertising reduces the number of smokers, states like California, which has taken an especially aggressive ad approach, claim a sharp dip. California, Massachusetts, and Arizona have pledged to spend $53 million this year on anti-tobacco advertising. That might seem like pennies compared with the tobacco industry’s $5 billion in annual profits, but other states are joining the burgeoning bandwagon as well.

Structured like a classic political negative, FDA Rule first states the opposition’s claim, then attacks it: “Tobacco companies say they don’t target kids” … and then, to staccato music and pulsing visuals, “but the facts tell a different story.” The female narrative voice serves a different purpose here than in traditional political campaigns, where it is sometimes used to soften negative spots. Here, it only compounds the menace. The context gives the woman an implied stake in the issue: She could, the spot seems to say, be the mother of one of these kids.

The “facts” the tobacco industry avoids are laid out in snappy succession: A neon-lit night scene clustering around a Marlboro hoarding; a Joe Camel poster inviting viewers to “go ahead,” assuring them that “it’s on me”; shots of youngsters drawn to “eye-level displays” and “promotions that clearly appeal to kids.” A kid looks into a cigarette-vending machine; a toy car is plastered with tobacco brand names; a Newport poster equates smoking with freshness and the outdoors; Joe Camel flaunts his sax. The speed and number of the images–blink once, and you’ll miss two–make tobacco marketing seem demonic, all-pervasive.

The rush settles briefly, with a slow shot of a hand manipulating a Marlboro race car. The hand is that of a young child, and the message–that he will learn … and smoke–is made more explicit. Chyron and narrator tell us that “3,000 kids will start smoking today.” The figure touted here would have required third-party verification in a political-campaign spot; it is easily accepted in a spot that takes on an industry that has long been banned from running ads on television.

The spot shifts to a fresh-faced blond teen-ager lighting up in what appears to be a park. Whatever the actual demographic of the teen smoker–if there be one–FDA Rule is pitched at the most powerful voting bloc in American politics: the white middle class. No black leather and chains here–these are ubiquitous white-bread kids, who will nonetheless drop like flies because of “their addiction.” Flash effects and double exposures reinforce cause and effect–promotions and displays and vending machines equal teen-age smokers and 1,000 deaths a day. The corollary: Protecting kids from “tobacco marketing and sales” (by supporting the Food and Drug Administration rules the spot is promoting) will protect them from the noxious weed itself.

The closing scene strikes a match to the cause: “Tobacco vs. kids, where America draws the line.” There’s a dissonant note here, however: Throughout the spot, our smokers, the last one seen in satisfied profile, seem to be enjoying their smoke. A testament to the addictive power of tobacco, you say? Be that as it may, a tobacco company that dared to make an unabashed link between cigarettes and pleasure would have had the book thrown at them.

Anti-smoking advertising is only one weapon in the fight against tobacco: A proposed settlement being worked on by U.S. cigarette makers and government lawyers will require that the tobacco industry 1) fund smoking-cessation programs for American smokers; 2) commit to reducing teen smoking by 50 percent over the next seven years, failing which it will pay huge penalties; 3) drastically curtail advertising; 4) fund “countermarketing” programs. Earlier today, the Federal Trade Commission announced that it will charge R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. with unfair advertising practices, alleging that its Joe Camel campaign targets children. (See MSNBC for the full story.) While FDA Rule is nowhere near as dramatic as other spots of its ilk (one shows a tobacco junkie smoking through a hole in her neck; another, a teen smoker’s face putrefying, shedding worms, as she brushes her teeth; a third, Marlboro Man Wayne McLaren dying of lung cancer), it makes its point: Hook one kid early with promotions, and peer pressure will do the rest.

–Robert Shrum