OPINION: Mills on ... anti-smoking ads

How do you stop teenagers smoking or prevent them getting started?

It's the question millions of parents, not to mention health authorities

and governments, would like answered. Over the years just about

everything must have been tried: bribes, threats, health warnings,

wealth warnings, peer group pressure, the beagle trick (ie forced

smoking, like the dogs tobacco companies used to test their wares on),

even ads.



Which brings us neatly to a new series of ads by TBWA/London designed to

discourage teenagers from smoking. Each of the six ads focuses on a

teenager. Katya is into fashion; Dimon is into football; Rodrigo into

skating; Lioha in a band and so on. On-screen captions describe each of

them. Thus Lioha 'does jams; does crowds; does dates; doesn't smoke',

while Katya 'does fashion; does her own thing; doesn't smoke'.



You probably get the message but what you might not get is why none of

them is black or Asian, none of them is called Dazza, Gazza, Jezza,

Natalie or Kylie, and why none of them is into Slipknot and baggie

jeans. The answer is because they're from Portugal and Russia, which is

where the ads were originally made and shown. So is this some kind of

European anti-smoking ad? Well, yes, but it's not quite what you're

thinking. This is a campaign made and paid for by three tobacco

companies: BAT, Philip Morris and Japan Tobacco. Having run the ads in

Portugal and Russia with, they claim, some success, they are now running

it on MTV Europe - which means targeting the UK.



Ah, you say, but what constitutes success? A good question. According to

the companies involved it's nothing so crude as a reduction in teen

smoking, merely some research from Portugal and Russia which shows that

there was reasonable awareness of the ads and comprehension of the

message.



I'll be surprised if that is the case here. The children are from the

file in the creative department marked 'stereotypical teenagers doing

cool things'. They're clean and neat, which may be how teenagers are in

Lisbon and Moscow, but the average UK teenager is spotty, stroppy and

high maintenance. I find it hard to believe that any, let alone the ones

most likely to take up smoking, will identify with the children shown in

these films. This means that the assumption that underpins the campaign

- one generation, one message - is not a solid one.



As for the message, I am also unconvinced. These ads may say that you

can not smoke and still be cool, but some teenagers will ask: 'OK, so

how much cooler could I be if I did smoke?' The ads also make no serious

attempt to offer any reasons not to smoke such as health, wealth and

pulling power, all of which mightily influence teen behaviour.



Does that mean they're pointless? It may be churlish to criticise the

tobacco companies for finally doing something about teenage smoking in

the UK, but the timing of the campaign is interesting. Why, after all

those years of insisting they didn't target teenagers, are they only now

putting their money where their mouths are? You may conclude that at a

time when the UK Government is poised to legislate out tobacco

advertising once and for all, there's a certain something to be said for

the tobacco companies playing the good corporate citizen.



You may also conclude that the actual media budget - dollars 3.2 million

(which buys you diddly squat, even on MTV) - means we're talking gesture

advertising here. Still, if we're talking gestures, how much more

effective it would have been simply to hand over the money to the

Department of Health and said: 'We support what you're doing. This will

make your media budget go further.'



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