Cigarette ads mock foes of tobacco Anti-smoking activists fear edgy, irreverent campaigns attract teens

July 12, 1998|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Go ahead, light up a cigarette. Why? Because a bunch of just-say-no health cops as old as your parents don't want you to!

In a notable shift of marketing strategy, the No. 2 U.S. tobacco company has launched new advertisements for its much-vilified cigarettes that challenge anti-smoking activists as killjoys and prudes who deserve defiance and ridicule.

The new approach to selling cigarettes could complicate the task of public health officials in trying to persuade young people not to smoke. The latest ads seek to enhance smoking's image as a forbidden fruit, and could make heavy-handed anti-smoking propaganda rebound to the tobacco industry's advantage, some public health experts say.

A new advertising campaign for Camel and a successful, year-old campaign for Winston -- both brands of No. 2 manufacturer R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. -- have taken the gloves off in attacking what the ads suggest are puritanical, prohibitionist attitudes of tobacco foes.

The new Camel advertisements feature mock warnings headlined "Viewer Discretion Advised," which appear along with the legally required health warning. "At least you can still smoke in your own car," declares one billboardfor Winston's so-called "No Bull" campaign. "Judge me all you want, just keep the verdict to yourself," says another.

A colorful Camel ad introduced in national magazines last month shows a shotgun-wielding farmer chasing from his house a young man whom he clearly has just caught in bed with his beautiful daughter. The shapely, blond daughter, draped in a bedsheet, is smoking a cigarette; her attitude is titillatingly described as: "Satisfied smoking."

The furious farmer, a comic figure in his floppy-eared hat, might be interpreted as standing for the anti-smoking forces.

"That's me," Robert L. Kline, director of the Tobacco Control Legal Clinic at the Northeastern University School of Law, says ruefully. "They're poking fun, which is an effective advertising technique."

Disturbing presentation

Public health advocates seem particularly disturbed by Camel's pseudo-warnings, which not only echo the health warning but resemble the ratings that rank movies and television shows as inappropriate for children.

"Implicitly, this mocks the campaign to keep children from smoking," Dr. John Slade, a veteran anti-tobacco activist at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical Center in New Jersey, says of Camel's new campaign. "The industry is in effect toying with us."

Not so, says Fran Creighton, Reynolds' marketing vice president for Camel. "We would never make fun of the cigarette health warning," she says. "This is maybe more about the PC [politically correct] world we live in. The world has an authoritarian view on everything."

Angry accusations from anti-smoking forces about the ads' nefarious purposes, however, may be just the reaction Reynolds marketers are hoping for. Other new Camel ads indirectly ridicule the anti-tobacco activists' earlier attacks on Reynolds' "Joe Camel" campaign, which Reynolds dropped last year after a decade of complaints that the cartoon camel appealed to children and contained sexual imagery.

"Viewer Discretion Advised: Subliminal Imagery," says one ad. "May Contain Pop Mythology," says another, and the symbol on the cigarette pack is labeled: "Camel's head on pack rendered from 'classified' photo of alien."

The ads' use of humor is tough for opponents of smoking to counter.

"It's a lot easier to sell rebellion than to sell nonrebellion," says Bill Novelli, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "They'll always score with something that has fatalism, edge, gallows humor."

With no national tobacco settlement to restrict cigarette advertising, and money from lawsuit settlements and government health budgets flowing into anti-smoking campaigns, some foresee a battle of slogans for the hearts and minds of young people. "It's not that different from two political campaigns slugging it out," says Dr. Michele H. Bloch, a Rockville physician who heads the tobacco prevention subcommittee of the American Medical Women's Association.

Reynolds denies intent

Reynolds executives deny that they specifically seek to undercut anti-smoking activists. But Ned Leary, the Reynolds vice president in charge of the Winston brand, admits his ads attack proposals to curb teen smoking by heavily taxing cigarettes. One Winston slogan asks: "Why do politicians smoke cigars while taxing cigarettes?"

"Winston with its 'No Bull' positioning is rejecting bull wherever it's found," and that includes cigarette taxes, Leary says. "If the question is, are we trying to debunk the serious health risks associated with smoking, the answer is absolutely not."

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