New Tobacco Ads Attempt to Erase Decades of Making People Look Cool

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This week, major American tobacco companies, including Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds, rolled out a new slate of court-ordered advertisements highlighting the dangers of smoking cigarettes. The black and white aesthetic of the ads is supposed to serve as a stark reminder of the evils of tobacco, but it reads instead like someone getting away with the bare minimum. Did you see those ads? They are basically low-rent PowerPoint decks, and Big Tobacco is the disinterested teen delivering the presentation.

How did we get here? In 1999, the Justice Department sued tobacco companies for civil fraud and racketeering — you know, the stuff they charged Junior Soprano with. It took another seven years for a judge to rule that cigarette companies needed to provide more explicit warnings about their products. Then came nearly a decade of haggling over the content of these warnings, including the type of font to be used. So, the merits of Comic Sans vs. Helvetica tied up the courts for years?

These guys are good.

The omnipresence of tobacco in American culture presents a real challenge for tobacco control advocates. One expert described the campaign as an attempt to “reverse 50 years of lying to the public.” That’s an awful lot of lies to undo with a few sterile television spots. One notorious Camel ad from 1946 proclaimed: “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.”

In addition to the relentless misinformation campaign waged by Big Tobacco, there is also the pop cultural significance of cigarettes to consider. As Jason Rodrigues wrote in the Guardian: “In 1950s America cigarette smoking was the epitome of cool and glamour.” From Audrey Hepburn to Humphrey Bogart, all your favorite stars smoked, and they looked good doing it. Cigarette smoke literally frames many of our cultural touchstones from the past 50 years.

Not everyone is optimistic about the impact of the new corrective ads. Robin Koval, CEO of Truth Initiative, an anti-tobacco nonprofit, said, “this won’t be the best vehicle to reach the youngest people who, of course, Big Tobacco sees as their replacement smokers.” This point rings true: The 1999 court ruling feels outdated. The tobacco companies were ordered to run television and newspaper ads. Today, only around 5 percent of 18-29 year olds often get their news from print sources. Traditional television viewership among younger viewers is down as well, as YouTube and other social media platforms begin to dominate the media landscape. And the new ads do little to target what many see as the tobacco business’s new frontier: e-cigarettes, which have been found to be just as dangerous as their analog counterparts.

To summarize: Tobacco companies are running corrective warning ads where relatively few active or potential consumers will see them, while still marketing products directly to young smokers in the form of flavored cartridges.

Now that’s just devious.

And it’s been an effective strategy. As recently as 2015, one in five adults used some type of tobacco product. Perhaps those numbers will dip even further with the new ads, which will reportedly cost millions of dollars. Perhaps not, though. To keep you buying their products, big tobacco companies spend more than $24 million every day on advertising.

Cigarette ads have been banned from television and the radio since 1970. Now, with the corrective ad campaign, cigarettes have weaseled their way back onto the airwaves. Even Big Tobacco’s punishment feels like a reward.

Again: These guys are good.