Edgy anti-tobacco TV ads get prime-time audience

Spots featuring body bags air during Olympics

September 21, 2000|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Amid the upbeat television coverage of gold-medal swimmers and gymnasts, the advertisement seems grim, almost shocking: young people piling 1,200 body bags outside a tobacco giant's Manhattan headquarters to demonstrate the daily death toll of smoking in America.

A young man with a bullhorn shouts up to gray-suited executives who peer warily from their windows several stories above.

"We're gonna leave these here," he says, "so you can see what 1,200 people actually look like!"

The edgy anti-smoking ad airing on NBC during the Olympics is most Americans' first encounter with the work of the American Legacy Foundation, which will get $1.5 billion over the next five years from the national tobacco settlement to persuade teen-agers not to smoke.

With money and marketing sophistication health advocates could not dream of a few years ago, the ad campaign represents a new phase in the battle against smoking, according to experts on tobacco history.

"Now the tables are turned," said Allan M. Brandt, a medical historian at Harvard University who is writing a book on the history of smoking. "To contest the sale of tobacco using the same tools that were used to sell tobacco in the first place is something we haven't seen. ... These media have been so expensive they haven't been accessible to the public health community."

The ad - one of five on the body-bag theme to be shown during the Olympics - contrasts sharply with the traditional approach to anti-smoking education, which urges kids not to smoke because it is bad for them. That approach has been "totally discredited," says Dr. Joseph A. Adams, a Towson internist and longtime anti-tobacco advocate.

"Young people are going to rebel against anyone they see as stuffy grown-ups telling them what to do," said Adams, former president of Smoke Free Maryland. "In these ads, the authority figures are the tobacco executives."

The American Legacy Foundation got off to a rocky start in February when four major networks - NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox - refused to run the body-bag spots, created by the Boston ad agency Arnold Communications. They did air briefly on local stations, as well as the cable channels Comedy Central and USA Network.

But they came under attack from Philip Morris, the world's biggest cigarette maker, whose headquarters is shown - but not named - in the ad. Attorney General Mike Easley of tobacco-friendly North Carolina also complained about the ad's targeting of tobacco executives.

Easley and Philip Morris raised the possibility that the ads might violate a clause in the national tobacco settlement that prohibits the foundation from engaging in "any personal attack on, or vilification of" tobacco companies or their employees. Philip Morris hinted that it might suspend payments to the foundation and the states under the settlement.

The foundation board pulled the ads Feb. 14. But it was soon caught in a cross-fire from the other side.

Anti-smoking advocates fromall over the country bombarded the foundation's just-appointed chairman, Washington State Attorney General Christine O. Gregoire, and president, Cheryl G. Healton, with calls and e-mail messages accusing them of caving in to the industry.

"I thought they were cowardly," said Stanton A. Glantz, a tobacco expert at the University of California at San Francisco who helped lead the protests. "They were effectively putting Philip Morris in charge of the American Legacy Foundation."

Glantz, a veteran of California anti-smoking campaigns, said the foundation's leaders were "naive" about the tobacco industry. "They came out of the gate, and the tobacco industry smashed them in the teeth," he said.

The foundation board met in March and decided to put the ads back on the air.

They began airing on MTV and other youth-oriented channels in April, and NBC subsequently agreed to accept the $15 million Olympics ad buy.

Philip Morris, whose "Marlboro Country" theme is satirized by one of the body-bag ads, still is not happy with the campaign.

But with the company working to soften its image - and spending $100 million a year on its own anti-youth-smoking program - its spokesmen are addressing the ad issue in the gentle tones of a parent let down by a wayward child.

"We certainly share a goal with the American Legacy Foundation, which is to reduce youth smoking," said Mike Pfeil, vice president of communications for Philip Morris USA. "However, we have been disappointed with some of the ads and other approaches the foundation has taken." He included in his criticism the anti-tobacco Web site created for the foundation's "Truth" marketing campaign, thetruth.com.

"I think it's fair to say we don't think some of their approaches are consistent with the spirit of the settlement," he said.

Healton, the foundation president and former associate dean of the Columbia University School of Public Health, disagreed. She noted that in recent court testimony and advertising, tobacco executives have cited the foundation's work as evidence of their own changed attitudes.

"If we're doing such a bad job, they're sure taking a lot of credit for it," she said.

Marvin E. Goldberg, a marketing professor at Penn State University, said the body-bag ads are quite effective. "I think it's as good a shot as we've had at making something work," he said.

The foundation's body-bag ads may be the most prominent anti-smoking TV ads to run since the late 1960s. At that time, the Federal Communications Commission ordered TV stations running cigarette ads to give air time to anti-tobacco messages.

With sales falling in the face of anti-smoking ads, tobacco makers agreed voluntarily to a 1971 ban on TV advertising of cigarettes.

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