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See the Anti-Smoking TV Ads Big Tobacco Is Forced to Run

By Published on .

Get ready for the most bland anti-smoking campaign you will ever see. Starting next week, tobacco companies will start spending money on TV ads again—not to sell cigarettes, but to warn against them. The ads, which are the product of years of legal wrangling, are as basic as it gets. The spots simply show black text against a white background, along with a voiceover, warning against the adverse health effects of smoking and the addictive power of nicotine.

The campaign is the culmination of a 18-year legal battle in which the federal government sought to recover billions of dollars in health care related to tobacco-caused illnesses. After lengthy litigation, the court-mandated remedy are anti-smoking ads that will begin running in newspapers on Sunday and on TV beginning Monday where they will run on major networks for a year.

While the media buy is substantial, the creative deficiencies of the spots are drawing criticism from a leading anti-smoking group. "The fact that the tobacco industry fought for 11 years to get to where to these ads have gotten to I think should tell you a lot," says Robin Koval, CEO of Truth Initiative, the anti-tobacco advocacy group. "They fought very hard to make these ads as invisible and unwatchable as they possibly can be." She also said the media placements do not align with the viewing habits of young people. "There are not a lot of young people watching ABC, CBS and NBC primetime anymore or reading a daily newspaper."

Below, a look at how we got here and what to expect:

How did this start?
The U.S. Justice Department in 1999 under President Bill Clinton filed a lawsuit against tobacco companies, seeking to recover smoking-related health expenses. In 2006, federal judge Gladys Kessler ruled that tobacco companies "lied, misrepresented, and deceived the American public, including smokers and the young people they avidly sought as 'replacement smokers,' about the devastating health effects of smoking." She ordered the companies to make "corrective statements" about addiction and the adverse health effects of smoking using television, newspapers, store displays and corporate websites.

But that order came 11 years ago. What took so long?
The tobacco companies appealed the decision. According to a coalition of health groups that intervened in the case, the companies sought to delay and weaken the ads. "Their continuing aversion to the truth is clear from how hard they fought the corrective statements, going so far as to seek removal of the phrase 'Here is the truth,' " according to the coalition, which includes the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, American Lung Association, Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, National African American Tobacco Prevention Network and the Tobacco-Free Kids Action Fund.

What do the tobacco companies say?
An R.J. Reynolds spokeswoman stated in an email to Ad Age that the company will "fully meet its obligations under this order as part of its commitment to being a responsible company operating in a controversial industry." An Altria spokesman referred to an October statement in which the company said it is "committed to aligning our business practices with society's expectations of a responsible company. This includes communicating openly about the health effects of our products, continuing to support cessation efforts, helping reduce underage tobacco use and developing potentially reduced-risk products." Altria Group-owned Philip Morris USA's brands include Marlboro. R.J. Reynolds is the maker of Camel and Newport.

So what do the rest of the ads look like?
Some of the copy states that "smoking kills, on average, 1,200 Americans. Every day," and "More people die every year from smoking than from murder, AIDS, suicide, drugs, car crashes, and alcohol, combined." All of the text can be found here. Here is one more TV ad example.

Where will the ads run?
TV ads will run five times per week for a year for a total of 260 spots. They must run Monday through Thursday between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. on CBS, ABC or NBC. Up to one-third of the spots can run outside of the three networks each month, but the overall audience must equal what a program on the three major networks draws. Full-page newspaper ads will run on Nov. 26, Dec. 10, Jan. 7, Feb. 4 and March 4 across more than 50 newspapers, including The New York Times, Chicago Tribune and L.A. Times. The ads must also run on newspaper websites. Check out the full list of publications here.

When was the last time cigarette brands could run real ads on TV?
Cigarettes brands have been barred from advertising on TV and radio advertising since 1971 (not counting e-cigarettes). More ad restrictions came in 1998 as result of the Master Settlement Agreement with 46 states, including prohibitions on billboards and stadium ads. The Truth Initiative was funded by settlement money.

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