When Phil Graham, an Irish ad man who began his career hawking whiskey and wine for Pernod Ricard in the ‘90s, signed on with the then-upstart Truth Initiative as its marketing director 20 years ago, he was tasked with a monumental goal: ending youth smoking.
At the time of the campaign’s inception, around one in four American high schoolers used tobacco and the Philip Morrises of the world controlled the few anti-smoking narratives that existed. But Graham took a fact-based approach to cigarettes, staying the course as Truth’s messaging saturated local billboards and Super Bowl ad slots alike. The result: “Through 2004, approximately 450,000 adolescents were prevented from trying smoking nationwide,” a 2009 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine said of the Truth Initiative, which is now cited as one of the most successful public health campaigns in recent memory.
With a post-Truth résumé that includes a decade-long stint at Mother New York, and now as the founding partner and CEO of consultancy Verdes, Graham is turning his attention to the next major health issue facing Americans: the push to inoculate millions against (and amid) a global pandemic. Early clinical trial results from Pfizer and Moderna are promising, but the body politic remains skeptical, with some reports suggesting fewer than half of Americans would opt to get vaccinated as soon as possible.
In a recent conversation with Ad Age, Graham offered some insight on how to run a public health campaign, how marketers should approach a polarized populace, and how to apply lessons learned from the crusade against Big Tobacco—and, years earlier, polio—to the current fight against COVID-19.
Why was the Truth Initiative successful?
I think one of the core reasons for Truth’s success was that it was so focused in its targeting and audience, aimed at what we called “sensation-seeking kids.” Basically, there were the teenagers who were using smoking as an expression of rebellion, and we knew early on that it was going to be really hard to take away that expression unless we were going to replace it with something. But if we could arm these teens with the knowledge that Big Tobacco has been manipulating them, then we’d give them a very different direction to point their rebellion, because an act is not rebellious if you’re being manipulated into it.