Motive entirely trivial as PM raps smoking

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Marketer: Philip Morris USA

Agency: Y&R Advertising, New York

Ad Review rating: Two stars

Philip Morris USA is on the air with anti-teen-smoking advertising--i.e. advertising discouraging its customers and future customers from using its product--and the reaction has been very nearly uniform contempt.

Though three spots and a parallel print campaign clearly tell young people "Think. Don't smoke," various anti-smoking advocates have been all over the media questioning both the efficacy of the ads and the motives of the advertiser.

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, for instance, issued a press release advising the advertiser, if it is really serious about the issue, to kill off the Marlboro cowboy. (As if.)

Others, recalling the industry's documented internal discussions considering a media smokescreen of "preadult education" to camouflage the recruitment of replacement smokers, dismiss the current effort as a transparent PR move.

One woman, interviewed on National Public Radio, took the skepticism still farther by theorizing the campaign from Y&R Advertising, New York, actually is a sinister attempt to increase youth smoking, because it contains certain language identical to that found in Marlboro ads.

Her idea is that the cleverly embedded language, because it is associated with pro-cigarette messages, is a de facto pro-cigarette message itself. But we tend to doubt it, inasmuch as the language is as follows: "SURGEON GENERAL'S WARNING: Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, and Emphysema."

Oh, yeah. That's a come-on.

So, then, what is the "Youth Smoking Prevention" campaign from Philip Morris?

Here's what: a somewhat lame, but by no means especially lame, "don't smoke" effort that isn't nearly the best it can be, but also no worse than some from government agencies and interest groups whose motives are unquestionably pure.

"I don't need to smoke to prove myself," says a self-confident girl in one spot. "My coolness is not on trial here."

"I don't smoke," another girl says, "because sometimes it's what you don't do that makes you who you are."

Though the spots seem a bit stilted and manufactured, by attacking the equation between smoking and "coolness," they do get to the heart of the problem.

No, they aren't as devastating as the campaign from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health or the Arizona youth anti-smoking campaign, both of which tap into adolescents' greatest concern--vanity--by trading on the revolting ugliness of smoking and its effects.

And, sure, it's understandable that Big Tobacco's opponents are a bit suspicious of Philip Morris' intentions. The industry has, after all, engaged in a pattern of deceit, obfuscation and brazen denial for decades while marketing a product that has killed millions. If these people were to descend Mount Sinai bearing a pair of stone tablets, you'd be wise to check the tablets for nicotine.

But, if these spots aren't especially potent, neither are they counterproductive. To the degree that they add to the universe of anti-smoking messages, they can only help.

If they don't exactly neutralize the Marlboro man, they are nonetheless unprecedented in their challenge of the very psychology--the projection of cool individuality--that has propelled the most successful brand in the history of commerce. To undermine its own selling strategy is an extraordinary measure for any marketer to take.

Who cares what the motivation is? In this case, the naysayers should just shut up.

Copyright December 1998, Crain Communications Inc.

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