How to make lots and lots of money go up in smoke

By Published on .

Marketer: American Legacy Foundation
Agency: Crispin Porter & Bogusky, Miami, and Arnold Communications, Boston
Ad review rating: Two stars

First of all, since today's subject is tobacco, Ad Review wants to apologize for any misunderstanding when we noted recently that Philip Morris cigarettes have "killed more people than Hitler." Unfortunately, a company spokesman misinterpreted our words as a "comparison of the decent, honest, hardworking people of [Philip Morris] to Adolph [sic] Hitler."

We meant nothing of the sort. We were strictly talking body count--the sheer volume of smokers who have died of Marlboro Disease.

True, we've long wondered how those decent, hardworking Philip Morris employees lived with themselves knowing that their company was peddling addictive carcinogens and lying about it, frequently under oath. But we're not at all suggesting these patriotic Americans, our friends and neighbors, are genocidal sociopaths.

We're sure they were just following orders.

However, we can say this with certainty: Hitler was Adolf. Adolph's is a meat tenderizer.

But we stray from our point, which is that you can hardly blame the anti-tobacco movement for wanting to demonize Big Tobacco in their efforts to dissuade young people from smoking.

Two spots from the American Legacy Foundation do just that, in one by piling body bags in front of Philip Morris' headquarters and in another by trying to deliver a "lie detector" a PM executive. Very clever. Very pointed.

And very unfortunate, because, as the agencies behind them should have known from the start, they'll scarcely see the light of day.

The networks won't air them because they are advocacy advertising, with a political message instead of a public- health one. Beyond that, the mammoth tobacco settlement that is funding this $160 million (or so) campaign specifically prohibits making the tobacco companies--vs. smoking itself--the target of the advertising.

Maybe it was a deal with the devil. But it was a deal, and to violate it so openly makes a mockery out of the campaign's theme, which is "Truth."

So, with those spots withdrawn, a lot of time and production money has been wasted following essentially a corrupt strategy. Furthermore, what is left is not very good.

The spots--jointly produced by Crispin Porter & Bogusky, Miami, and Arnold Communications, Boston--are amusing and faithful parodies of sneaker and soft-drink commercials. One is ostensibly for a soda called "Splode," and features bungee jumpers seeking very soft-drink-ad sorts of thrills. But after two kids successfully guzzle their sodas while leaping, a third is victimized by an exploding can.

The message: "Only one product actually kills one-third of the people who use it. Tobacco."

The other ad features three basketball players in a slam-dunking contest: "Introducing the H-Bomb," the voice-over says, "the only shoe to be used by all three finalists in this year's dunkfest.

"H-Bomb soles are filled with hydrogen, and must be kept away from an open flame, but it's 10 times lighter than air. So when you go up in your H-Bombs, baby, you ain't never comin' down."

Two players safely execute their dunks. But when the third player finishes his virtuosic move, the impact of his sneaker soles against the gym floor triggers an explosion sending him into oblivion. Then comes the same message: Tobacco kills a third of its users.

What's good about these spots is that they use familiar imagery to capture the target audience for the message. The bad thing about these spots is that the message is sadly unimpressive.

"Tobacco kills" has been proved again and again to be unmotivating for the adolescent audience that a) defies authority, and b) imagines itself invulnerable.

What does impress teen-agers is a credible appeal to their vanity--i.e., tobacco makes you smell, tobacco makes your teeth yellow, smoke repulses the opposite sex, cancer destroys beauty and so on.

It's bizarre that the American Legacy Foundation deployed a strategy destined never to reach its audience. It's unfathomable that what remains, at least for now, hinges on a strategy that has been discredited for decades.

The real truth of the "Truth" campaign so far is that well-intentioned people with unprecedented resources can make lots and lots of money go up in smoke.

Copyright February 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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