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Disarming the smoking guns



Positive rebellion: That's how one market researcher described the ethos of Students Working Against Tobacco (SWAT), the statewide anti-teen-smoking group behind the "Truth" advertisements.

"They're amazingly media literate," said Amanda Dixson, a focus-group leader for The Informer, a firm that does qualitative research in the youth market. Dixson and her co-workers were leading small-group discussions at the second annual Teen Tobacco Summit, held Feb. 25-27 in Tarpon Springs. About 300 adults and 1,000 kids from every county in Florida -- some serious SWAT activists, some mildly curious hangers-on lured, perhaps, by the free trip -- were there to learn about and give input to Florida's unique teen-based anti-smoking campaign.

At the summit the kids responded to an advertising firm's new round of SWAT commercials. They offered ideas on how to get their message noticed at tobacco companies' shareholders' meeting. They learned PR tactics ("how to form key messages and pitch to different members of the media," was the description for one session). They were asked by The Informer people how they viewed themselves and the campaign, and how they'd like to be portrayed in future campaigns.

Every session was geared toward the year-old campaign's next step. No one paused to consider that the group might not be around for another year.

And why should they have worried about that? After all, Florida's anti-smoking campaign has gotten the tobacco companies' attention. The ads don't talk about the effects of smoking -- after all, kids know the bad stuff and puff away regardless. Rather, the ads take aim at how the tobacco industry and its PR people spin and twist and stretch the truth about smoking: "Look how naive you are," is the gist of the message, "being manipulated, falling for these lies."

This novel approach has the tobacco companies concerned. They're worried enough that in their settlement last fall with the attorneys general of 46 other states, "Truth"-type ads were specifically forbidden.

Peter Mitchell, acting director of Florida's anti-smoking program, called that provision "the Florida clause": In those other states, "You can't attack the industry," he said at the teen summit, "and you can't attack the people working with the industry."

Despite this nod to the campaign's effectiveness, there's talk now in the Florida Legislature of eliminating the program, which cost $70 million its first year, a third of which funded the "Truth" ads. No longer needing to fund start-up costs, the program is asking for $61 million for its second year. Some legislators, though, are wondering whether it's worth it.

"We like them," said Edgewater High School junior Samuel Adams of the "Truth" ads. Adams was a session leader at the teen summit. "We were the ones who thought about the whole idea" for the ads, he points out.

Asked why the ads work, Lyman High School junior Christine Ortiz, a SWAT chairperson from Seminole County, echoed Adams' sentiments. "Because they were thought up by kids," she said. "They were the kids' ideas, so they know what they're going to be attracted to." Ortiz noted that some of her friends -- even those who smoke -- can recite the ads by heart.

Melanie Mendez and Simone Shine were at the summit from Monroe County, at the state's southwest tip. "They're witty," Shine said about the ads. "They show what the tobacco companies are doing, how they lie, manipulate," added Mendez.

Indeed, "lie" and "manipulate" were the two most popular words at the summit. Clearly they strike a chord with teens who, in the throes of establishing their own identities, tend to rebel against parents and other authority figures they see as clueless or deceptive. And the "Truth" campaign establishes once-faceless tobacco executives as lying authority figures. If you smoke, the ads assert, you're just playing into their greedy hands -- an interesting line of reasoning for teens, who want to belong yet at the same time to assert their individuality.

Thus the "positive rebellion" comment from The Informer's Dixson. Her co-worker Graham Hall expounded on the teens' relationship to the overload of marketing messages they encounter each day enticing them to purchase coolness. "They're incredibly aware of advertising," said Hall, musing that the teens were the first generation to have smart, ironic ads beamed at them from day one. Nonetheless, noted Hall, "They're not incredibly media savvy. If they were asked to make an ad it would be incredibly simplistic and wouldn't work if it were played back to them."

This idea explains the contradictions evident at the summit. For example, one group of kids was asked to comment on proposed TV ads for SWAT. "You guys are really the people making these commercials," said a representative from the Miami firm handling the campaign. (It's true, too -- the first wave of "Truth" ads changed substantially after teen input.) The kids were also told, "You're the audience, so if you tell us what you like, they'll be more effective." Then the group shifted to a session during which a college-age SWAT mentor held up tobacco ads from magazines, asking, "What's happening in the ad?" and explaining, "Every ad tells a story."

In other words, the teens were the creators, audience and unschooled students of advertising tactics.

Surveys done by the anti-smoking program say that its "Truth" campaign has a 90 percent awareness rate among teens. Awareness, though, is just the first step; next comes attitude change, and after that behavior change. Almost everyone agrees that one year isn't nearly enough time to see behavior change.

Mary Ann Ferguson, of the University of Florida's College of Journalism and Communications, is evaluating the state's anti-smoking campaign. Her first survey was conducted only a few months after the campaign's launch and tracked the attitudes of adults -- a dubious decision, considering the campaign's target audience. Nonetheless, of the adults aware of the campaign, 73 percent liked the intent and tone of the ads, but less than one-third thought the ads would actually cause teen smoking to decline.

How to explain this? Ferguson sees a parallel with TV ads that are "particularly funny or amusing, that you enjoy, but you won't necessarily go out and buy the product."

True, the contradictions and reversals of anti-teen-smoking ads could turn any campaign into fodder for an upper-level psychology course. The tobacco companies have it easier: Currently Philip Morris is running a series of ads aimed at teens that simply states, "Don't smoke." Uh, yeah, right.

"There's been a lot of people looking at Florida," says Ferguson. Here's why: Other states' campaigns tend to talk about the effects of smoking, show people dying or make smokers look disgusting. But lighting or not lighting up a cigarette is an act of desire, not of information or reason.

One thing is certain, says Ferguson: "We have seen an increase in `teen` smoking despite those campaigns in other states."

Florida is one of a few states that negotiated individually with the tobacco companies, and our $13 billion settlement originally included certain restrictions; for example, a set amount of money had to be spent fighting teen smoking. Additionally, anti-smoking ads could not directly target tobacco companies, which is why the very first "Truth" ads mocked the public-relations people rather than the industry executives.

Then the other states' settlements affected Florida: We got a little more money, and Florida's restrictions were lifted. "Theoretically this could've been good," says Damien Filer, press secretary with the tobacco program. "We could go after the tobacco companies." But at the same time there was no longer any money specifically earmarked for teen-smoking efforts, which is why the Legislature is now free to cut off the program's funding.

"Where `Florida's program` has definitely had an impact is the awareness of the campaign," says Peter Fisher, manager of state issues for the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "It's way too early to expect to see massive social change."

Fisher notes that right now every state is debating what to do with its settlement funds, and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids works to make sure some money is spent on effective tobacco-control efforts. "We certainly point to Florida as an innovative and unique program," says Fisher. "We use it as an example."

In his budget Gov. Jeb Bush proposed fully funding the program at $61.5 million. On March 12 the Senate approved $50 million for it, but the House completely left it out of its budget proposal. Representatives say they want to use the money for other health programs, like subsidized care for children, or for education programs or tax breaks. So SWAT's fate is completely up in the air.

"We were sensitive to the fact that there is a lot of competition for the way these `settlement` funds are used," says Filer. Nonetheless, he's surprised and dismayed when he hears legislators attack the program -- like House Speaker John Thrasher (R-Orange Park), who told the Miami Herald, "We're spending $60 million without some evidence it's done some good."

"I've even heard some representatives say, ‘These ads don't appeal to me,'" says Filer. "Well, they're not supposed to."


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