'Tobacco is whacko,' Lorillard hits hard

By Published on .

MARKETER: Lorillard Tobacco Co.
AGENCY: Bozell, New York
RATING: Three stars

This just in: Smoking seems to be bad for your health. Yes, after years of lies, deceit, cover-up and sometimes hilarious circumlocutions on the subject, Big Tobacco last week used its corporate Web sites to acknowledge that cigarettes probably do have some negatives.

Such as cancer of the lungs.

It's as if the evidence suddenly materialized, like the Rose Law Firm billing records, in the halls of carcinogen commerce.

Sure, the admission is at least 35 years too late, and the manufacturers' text all has a hollow, Nixonian, "mistakes were made" ring to it. Nonetheless, under the dual threats of government regulation and multibillion-dollar litigation, some of the world's largest advertisers are now offering the most bizarre and extraordinary mixed message in commercial history:

Buy our product. It will kill you.

How's that for a unique selling proposition?

Meantime, the restaging of the Big 5 tobacco companies begins. Apparently disenchanted with the evil-lying-scum positioning, the cigarette makers now are our friends, neighbors and gentle healthcare advocates. Because, hey, they really care.

So, for example, Philip Morris Cos. is on the air with a corporate-image campaign whose message is basically "Never mind that we've killed more people than Hitler. Don't forget all the good works we've done with our fine Miller Lite and Kraft Velveeta cheeselike product."

And now comes Lorillard, the second cigarette company to produce an anti-smoking ad campaign.

The first Lorillard spot, from Bozell, New York, is set in a dark, dangerous-looking piercing parlor. A teen-age boy visits to have a stud riveted to his tongue, and--in this forbidding, filthy place--is served by a 60-ish man with brown teeth and very scary eyewear. After a graphic, grotesque close-up of the procedure itself, the creepy piercer says to his young customer, "Join me in a cigarette?"

But the kid wants no part of it. "What do you think," he replies, "I'm crazy?"

The joke, of course, is that body mutilation under questionable sanitary conditions is deemed by the kid to be more benign, and rational, than smoking. Then comes the tagline: "Tobacco is whacko if you're a teen."

We swear to God. Lorillard is paying big money to say that tobacco is whacko. If that doesn't seem odd to you, try to imagine some other unit of the Tisch empire--hotels or insurance, say--trying something similar.

"Loews blows."

"CNA is DOA."

We don't think so.

Anti-tobacco advocates undoubtedly will divine in this ad--as they did with Philip Morris' anti-teen-smoking effort--some sort of subtle, underhanded, sleazy pro-tobacco message. But forget about that. No matter what sinister subtext you may believe you see, "Tobacco is whacko" is as categorical a denunciation as you could ever wish for. And, as anti-smoking spots go, this one is more resonant than most.

That's because it isn't about death, it's about ugliness. Mortality data are nothing to teen-agers, who think they're invulnerable. But brown teeth. . . . that's a horror they understand, believe and internalize in an instant.

Put aside the corporate motives; we can assume they are purely self-interested and probably as heinous as ever. What matters here is the effect. Many children will see this and be put off from smoking, by a company that sells cigarettes.

Which is undeniably positive, and positively absurd.

Copyright October 1999, Crain Communications Inc.

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