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Teens Actually Like Being Told Why Smoking's Dumb

Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

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NEW YORK -- Marketers spend billions each year in a highly competitive marketplace to convince teens they need or want such products as cellphones, trendy apparel, tech gadgets, snacks and soft drinks.

That's an easy job compared with selling teens on the idea that there are products that they don't want to go near.

The goal of the American Legacy Foundation, which uses selling tactics similar to those used by consumer marketers, is to sell teens on not smoking cigarettes.

The group's ''Truth'' ad campaign tries to show teens the dark side of smoking by exposing the marketing tactics of tobacco companies. The high-profile campaign included buying ads on the Super Bowl this year.

The methodology: TV advertising created with the intent of having a credible message that taps into the ''in'' crowd and tries to make it cool to be anti-smoking.

Leveraging peer pressure is an important way to reach a demographic in which ''hanging out with friends'' ranks among the top activities of both boys and girls, according to a teen survey last summer by research group BuzzBack. And 68% of teens classify themselves in one of three groups: socialites, outsiders or academics.

The foundation, with help from ad agencies Crispin Porter + Bogusky, Miami, and Arnold Worldwide, Boston, developed grainy, documentary-style ads that inform teens about the health aspects of smoking, without preaching. ''You don't have to be much of a social scientist to recognize that saying, 'I dare you to do something,' is almost a guarantee that young people will rebel,'' says Chris Cullen, executive vice president, marketing and communications.

By recognizing that ''the No. 1 thing on their minds is the crowd they are in, what's my circle and how hard do I have to work to be in it,'' Cullen says, the Truth campaign has gotten ''into the in crowd. We are privileged to have an inside conversation with 12- to 17-year-olds.''

The foundation can afford that privilege thanks to $1.8 billion from the $200 billion settlement reached in 1998 between 46 state attorneys general and tobacco companies.

American Legacy spends about $100 million annually on anti-smoking messages in TV ads, grass-roots events and on the Web.

''The Web's a huge part of Truth,'' says Alex Bogusky, creative director and partner at Crispin Porter + Bogusky. ''You don't have to do the job in one 30-second ad because you've done pieces of it all over the landscape over the last two years.''

Two recent TV ads show teens lining up mannequins on a busy street to represent ''replacement smokers'' -- new smokers who cigarette companies try to get to replace smokers who die. The ad closes on a girl whose father died from smoking-related illnesses. She points out that she hasn't found a replacement for her dad.

In another ad, teens survey people on the street and take their photo if they say they know anyone affected by smoking. The ad closes with Lucy Abbott, who introduces herself as someone waiting for a lung transplant and says: ''If you didn't know someone before, you do now.''

Earlier ads in the campaign looked at the numbers of Americans affected by smoking-related illnesses. The latest ads aim to personalize the impact.

''At some point (teens) seem distanced by the facts,'' Cullen says. ''They told us to show them a way to think about 1,200 daily deaths.''

The TV ads were very popular with consumers surveyed by Ad Track, USA TODAY's weekly poll -- particularly 18- to 24-year-olds, the youngest age group in the survey.

Of those familiar with the ads, 39% overall like the ads ''a lot.'' And for those ages 18 to 24, 43% like the ads a lot -- more than double the Ad Track average of 21%. Though Legacy's core target is 12- to 17-year-olds, Cullen is glad the ads resonate widely, but says the ad-buying strategy focuses on teens.

''We are going to be talking to a broad audience of young people, but we make our media decisions based on the at-risk, rebellious, independence-seeking teens open to smoking,'' Cullen says.

The ads may have helped cut teen smoking in recent years, but the impact may be beginning to wane. After teen smoking fell by half since the mid-1990s, the 2003 University of Michigan Monitoring the Future Study released in December reported the ''rate of declines is slowing appreciably.''

But American Legacy will release a study in six months that has ''clear evidence that the Truth campaign has accelerated the rate of decline in youth smoking,'' Chief Executive Cheryl Healton says.

Demonstrating results is key to American Legacy's hunt for new sources of funding. The non-profit's settlement funding is over in 2008, Healton says. ''In another four years we won't be able to afford such a campaign (as Truth). If it stayed on the air, it would be at a much lower level.''

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.


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