The truth anti-smoking campaign: What do you want from me?

If you own a television, you have seen the truth© ad campaign, which is a successful, hyperbolic, youth-oriented campaign designed to …

… make people angry at tobacco companies?

… make people choose not to smoke?

… convince the federal government to make tobacco illegal?

… scare smokers?

It is kind of difficult to tell. Here, for example, is the latest commercial, the “Shards O’ Glass Freeze Pop” spot.

The concept is funny and the presentation of the concept supports the humor and, as long as you know what the truth© campaign is about, the message is pretty obvious: Tobacco companies a) openly tell consumers their product is dangerous, and b) sell it anyway.

So, armed with this information, what action is it supposed I will want to take?

What is the goal?

The obvious answer is that the truth© people ultimately want the use of tobacco to end. This is a noble goal. Wildly Utopian, but noble nonetheless. There is no good* reason for people to use tobacco and there are plenty of good reasons not to. This certainly isn’t the first social or commercial movement in that direction. Hating tobacco companies can be pretty lucrative.

*That is assuming “feeling good” is not a good reason, which is debatable.

$39 million, here.

The “about” portion of truth©’s web site is devoted to the nobility of this cause.

In 2002, there were approximately 300,000 fewer smokers because of truth. And since nearly 1/3 of smokers will eventually die of a tobacco-related disease, this translates into 100,000 lives saved.

Yes, of course, the precious lives saved. Those 100,000 people are now free to die of another equally horrible disease, most likely heart disease, the leading killer in the United States, but possibly some other form of non-tobacco-related cancer. Maybe prostate, maybe breast, maybe bone or skin or brain. Maybe lightrail accident or cocaine overdose or strategically fired bullet or just old age. But at least it won’t be the cancer of the lung, unless, of course, some of those 100,000 people work in a factory of some kind. They might still be screwed on the lung cancer front. But at least the cigarettes won’t get them.

"Praise be to Allah"

The tone of this ad campaign has always had kind of a youth-in-revolt, fight-the-power sort of feeling to it that would have played well on a Beastie Boys album. I am sure that the kind of people who work for truth© are the same people who have passionate views about file sharing, buy organic foods for reasons they can’t even explain and protest when Walmart dares enter their neighborhood  to sell detergent at prices poor people can afford. These are the kinds of people who went to NYU and sign petitions to ban water.


I am not one of those people, obviously, but I understand the source of their worldview. A lot of people distrust big business, and do so for good reasons. Shady business practices should be exposed and ridiculed, and powerful people should never be fully trusted. The tobacco industry is as guilty as anybody.

"I also recommend bacon and scotch."

This is not a defense of the tobacco industry (calling it Big Tobacco seems like a political scare tactic) so much as it is a criticism of criticism. truth© has been running this campaign since 1998 and the entire time, in a campaign ostensibly bent on convincing people to stop smoking, it has focused all of its rhetorical energy on the cigarette companies themselves. If this was 1950, and fictional doctors were hocking Lucky Strikes, the campaign would make sense.

But it isn’t. For one (obvious) thing, everybody knows cigarettes are bad for you. The Surgeon General released a highly publicized report liking smoking to cancer in 1964. That’s not really an issue in 2010. For another thing, I can’t think of a type of speech that is more restricted in this country than tobacco advertising. When was the last time you saw a cigarette ad on TV?

If you were born after 1971, never. The federal government outlawed cigarette ads on TV and radio that year. Smokeless tobacco ads have been illegal on the airwaves since 1986. In June of this year, it became illegal for tobacco companies to sponsor cultural events, like sports and concerts. Tobacco companies aren’t even allowed to put their logo on clothing they sell. This is all part of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Act, whose end goal — and I am not making this up — is for tobacco ads to be allowed only in black letters on a white background.

The U.S. is a little behind on this, as usual. One country began imposing restrictions on tobacco advertising as early as 1941*. That country was Nazi Germany. But still.

*An odd and I’m sure total coincidence that nonetheless is worth mentioning: That act was passed on Dec. 7, 1941, which is the same day the Japanese flew their planes into Pearl Harbor.

As concerns the first amendment, the Ku Klux Klan has more freedom than Phillip Morris. Prostitutes have an easier time advertising.

So what does truth© want? Does it want tobacco companies to just outright quit making a product that is both legal and popular? Does it expect them to make cigarettes taste bad or something? Are we supposed to leave flaming bags of poop on the doorstep at Phillip Morris? Do the people at truth© live regular lives in the real world?

Is this ad campaign run by college sophomores?

“Our message here is to save the lives of our generation,” the web site says.

I guess so.


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