ANTI-SMOKING EFFORT WILL BURN ITSELF EVEN INTO KIDS' MINDS

By Published on .

The guy, photographed in stark and jumpy black-and-white, talks about how poisonous cigarettes are and about how the tobacco companies refuse to disclose the truth. It's anti-smoking boilerplate, and would have zero impact-except the guy is Patrick Reynolds, grandson of R.J.

"Why am I telling you this?" he asks. "I want to be on the right side for a change."

Wow.

This isn't a 30-second spot; it's a shot to the midsection, a body blow, a harsh and stunning indictment of tobacco malevolence, one of three PSAs from Houston Effler Herstek Favat, Boston, for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

A second spot features former tobacco lobbyist Victor Crawford, who apologizes for "marketing to kids" and then stonewalling about it. "I lied," he says, "and I'm sorry." It is another dumbfounding mea culpa, savagely compelling and dramatically pure. Yet, overpowering as it is, like the Reynolds spot, it is not exactly right.

Children, the most critical audience, may have no idea what a tobacco lobbyist is, or who R.J. Reynolds is, and therefore fail to grasp the drama. They may also fail to see the relevance, because encouraging children not to do something is a delicate and daunting enterprise.

One common tack is to reposition things their peers may regard as cool-smoking, drinking, drug use, sex, guns-as actually uncool, on the theory that the same forces that make kids susceptible to peer-group pressure make them wish, above all else, not to look foolish. But playing to those insecurities can backfire, because the reflexive reaction to adult preaching of any kind is summary dismissal.

Another option is a reasoned appeal to the child's logic. But there is no such thing-another reason the brutal candor of the Patrick Reynolds and Victor Crawford may not resonate equally with kids.

This leaves the time-honored approach of scaring the living bejesus out of them, and we say why not? But even in fear-mongering a public service advertiser faces the vagaries of child psychology. The danger, of course, is that danger itself is enticing. Hormone-twisted notions of what constitutes maturity, courage and definition of self are too often destructive of that self. Whatever the advertiser is portraying as foolish and deadly can gain cachet as a desirable forbidden fruit.

And therein the genius of the third spot in this campaign. It features Janet Sackman, a former cigarette model, now middle-aged and mutilated by cancer. She has lost her larynx.

"You may get cancer," she croaks, "but I doubt you'll get the truth from tobacco companies. They keep saying you can't get hooked on cigarettes. Even though many smokers who lose their vocal cords can't quit. I'm Janet Sackman. I was a model on cigarette ads and convinced many people to smoke. I hope I can convince you not to."

Intercut are scrapbook shots of the vivacious twentysomething model, looking gorgeous and alive, juxtaposed with the aging damaged goods. This preteens and adolescents can relate to, because it gets right to the physical self-consciousness that obsesses them.

Even the most contrary adolescent, who somehow sees beauty in the risk of death, will quake to imagine the death of beauty.

Ad Age Bulletin Board on Prodigy, or by Prodigy E-Mail at EFPB35A.

In this article:
Most Popular