In 1988 California voters passed Proposition 99, a measure that imposed a tax hike on cigarettes and earmarked the revenues thereby generated for antismoking efforts, including statewide media campaigns. The Tobacco Control Section of the California Department of Health Services (CDHS) thus pioneered the high-profile, taxpayer-funded, big-budget antismoking advertising efforts that would ultimately become common across the United States. The California campaigns consistently attracted media attention and industry awards, but in 2000 CDHS decided on a change of course for its advertising. Hiring the Los Angeles–based agency Ground Zero, CDHS set itself the task of supplementing its ongoing educational, secondhand smoke, and cessation efforts with a more direct and confrontational assault on the integrity of tobacco companies and their personnel.
Budgeted at $125 million over five years, the Ground Zero work for CDHS first took the form of 2001 television spots as well as outdoor and print ads tagged, ‘‘Do you smell smoke?’’ The television spots featured a fictional tobacco executive named Ken Lane, who was shown disclosing despicable trade secrets in discussions with colleagues. In 2002 Ground Zero crafted a particularly powerful spot aimed at convincing current smokers to quit, and in 2004 the agency introduced its ‘‘Undo’’ theme, which used images of people blowing bubbles instead of smoking, among other arresting visual schemes, as a way of asking Californians to imagine a world without cigarettes.
California continued to post decreases in its adult smoking rates throughout the years that the Ground Zero–crafted antitobacco campaigns ran, building on the declines that had been initiated beginning with Proposition 99. Only Utah boasted fewer smokers per capita among its adult population.
Beginning in 1967, the Federal Communications Commission required television broadcasters to donate airtime to one antitobacco advertiser for every four tobacco commercials that appeared. The antitobacco spots produced in subsequent years by groups such as the American Cancer Society proved extremely effective, and cigarette consumption in America began dropping for the first time in the twentieth century. Tobacco companies thus supported a ban on the television advertising of their own products, since such a move would largely spell the end of donated airtime for antitobacco groups, and since these groups would find it difficult to buy their own time or otherwise place public service spots during peak viewing hours. After the eventual Congressional ban on the television advertising of tobacco products was enacted, and through most of the 1970s and 1980s, antismoking commercials were generally relegated to off-peak hours and were not considered effective. Tobacco companies, meanwhile, devoted their extensive resources to other media and to high-profile sponsorships. The smoking declines initiated in the late 1960s slowed.
The economics of antitobacco advertising began to change dramatically, however, when California voters passed Proposition 99, the California Tobacco Health Protection Act of 1988. The act introduced a new statewide cigarette tax of 25 cents per pack and allocated the resultant revenues to a group of complementary antismoking initiatives, including education programs in California schools, funding for tobacco-related research, and a media campaign. Among the media campaign’s early efforts were spots that pointed out the moral bankruptcy of the tobacco industry; for instance, one commercial showed individual industry executives testifying in a congressional hearing that they did not believe tobacco was addictive. The best-known work in the first decade of California’s media campaign was crafted by the Los Angeles advertising agency Asher/Gould (successively renamed Asher & Partners, Asher/Gal & Partners, and Italia/Gal). Among the agency’s most lauded campaigns was a 1997 series of billboards featuring two cowboys on horseback in imagery that recalled the famous ‘‘Marlboro Man’’ ads. ‘‘I miss my lung, Bob,’’ read the text in one such billboard. ‘‘Bob, I’ve got emphysema,’’ read the text in another.
The California antismoking campaign was the first of its kind and scale in the world, and its success inspired Massachusetts, Florida, and Arizona, among other U.S. states, to embark on similar taxpayer-funded campaigns. CDHS’s approach to antitobacco advertising, as well as its larger strategy for the denormalization of tobacco use, likewise served as a model for such organizations as the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. Between 1988 and 1999 adult smoking rates in California fell more than 32 percent, and California’s declines in teen smoking well outpaced declines in other states.
CDHS’s 2000–05 antismoking media campaigns ran statewide in California, with the bulk of the messaging and budget devoted to a general market but with supplemental, language- and/or culture-specific commercials designed for Asians and Pacific Islanders, Latinos, African-Americans, and American Indians. CDHS placed great emphasis, through educational programs and other facets of its overall antismoking strategy, on a teenage audience, noting that 88 percent of smokers were introduced to cigarettes before age 18 and that the tobacco industry subtly continued to target teenagers despite legal rulings ordering it to cease doing so. The media campaign did not appeal strictly to teenagers, however. Part of the state’s overall antismoking strategy was to denormalize tobacco use in the culture at large, which would presumably, in both the short and long term, make the activity less appealing to impressionable youngsters. It was especially necessary to spread an antitobacco message to a general audience, CDHS felt, given the tobacco companies’ own concurrent efforts at normalizing their corporate images through court-ordered public-service advertising as well as voluntary image-crafting efforts. Many of the Ground Zero–crafted spots created between 2000 and 2005 focused on showing that tobacco companies, far from being normal businesses, were in fact morally reprehensible, villainous entities. The campaign also featured spots aimed at current smokers, which, in an effort to encourage them to quit, employed hardhitting dramatizations of the dire health risks they were taking by engaging in the habit.
One of the first states to use the California model for battling the tobacco industry’s influence was Massachusetts, whose Department of Health and Safety in 1994 increased taxes on cigarettes and invested the revenues in an ambitious marketing campaign crafted by the Boston advertising agency Houston Herstek Favat. Called ‘‘Truth,’’ the campaign’s television spots, like some of the early California commercials, sought to expose the tobacco companies’ morally compromised business practices. Patrick Reynolds, a grandson of tobacco scion R.J. Reynolds, appeared in one spot providing information about the numerous harmful chemicals in cigarettes. ‘‘Why am I telling you this?’’ Reynolds asked. ‘‘I want my family to be on the right side for a change.’’ Print ads attempted to generate public support for legislative measures aimed at reining in tobacco companies.
In 1998 the state of Florida likewise launched a marketing campaign funded by increased taxes on cigarettes. Created by Miami agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky and named ‘‘Truth’’ (like the Massachusetts campaign), the Florida campaign’s highlights included spots pairing the congressional testimony of tobaccoindustry executives with a sitcom laugh track, as well as spots showing teenagers who phoned tobacco corporations to ask pointed questions such as, ‘‘What is it about Lucky Strike cigarettes that’s lucky? Is it that I might live?’’
Following the 1998 master settlement agreement between four major tobacco companies and 46 U.S. states, which resolved lawsuits filed by state attorneys general, the tobacco companies were required to run their own antismoking advertising. Some critics, however, contended that these campaigns warned against smoking via methods that actually made smoking seem rebellious and therefore attractive to teens. Tobacco companies also took significant voluntary steps to recast their corporate images. Philip Morris Companies, for instance, changed its name to the comparatively nondescript Altria and markedly increased its food brand holdings. Another noteworthy result of the 1998 tobacco settlement was the formation of a public advocacy group with national reach, the American Legacy Foundation (ALF), funded by $1.5 billion of the total $206 billion in settlement money. Beginning in 2000 ALF spent more than $150 million a year on nationwide, antismoking advertising cocreated by Boston’s Arnold Worldwide (which had merged with Houston Herstek Favat) and Crispin Porter + Bogusky. The two agencies, leveraging their combined experience on the Massachusetts and Florida campaigns, had formed a team called the Alliance to bid for the ALF account. Unprecedented in scope and budget resources compared to previous antismoking projects, this campaign was, like its Massachusetts and Florida predecessors, also called ‘‘Truth,’’ and it went to previously unexplored inflammatory lengths. One of the Alliance’s first efforts involved filming activist teens piling body bags outside Philip Morris’s corporate headquarters in New York. The resulting spots proved too controversial for the major television networks and were pulled off the air, along with another commercial shot at Philip Morris headquarters, after the tobacco companies involved in the 1999 settlement publicly complained.
In a website companion to its media campaign, http://www.tobaccofreeca.com, the California Department of Health Services detailed ways in which tobacco companies continued to target minors despite the laws prohibiting them from doing so. CDHS pointed out, for instance, that images of the Marlboro Man, an icon specifically created to appeal to young people, was still, as of 2004, prominently featured in Philip Morris’s advertising. The website cited a 2001 Stanford University study finding that almost half of California’s convenience stores had tobacco advertising materials placed at a height of three feet or lower, at eye level with young children, and that in 23 percent of the state’s convenience stores, cigarettes for sale were located less than six inches away from candy displays. In 2002, CDHS reported, R.J. Reynolds was caught advertising in youth-oriented publications. And in 2003 the Tobacco Enforcement Committee of the National Association of Attorneys General discovered that four different tobacco corporations had run ads in school editions of major U.S. newsweeklies.
CDHS’s August 2000 hiring of Ground Zero for a fiveyear, $125 million advertising effort represented a change of direction for the state’s antismoking campaigns. Like the nationwide ‘‘Truth’’ campaign then getting under way, the Ground Zero work focused more intensely than ever on overt vilification of tobacco companies. The campaign’s television spots broke in early 2001 and ran during prime-time network programming like CBS’s Survivor season finale and the NBC shows ER and The West Wing. Supporting outdoor, print, and online work reinforced the tagline ‘‘Do you smell smoke?’’ which, as Ground Zero’s chairman Jim Smith told Adweek, referred to the premise that ‘‘the tobacco companies use smoke and mirrors, and we’re suggesting maybe you smell smoke, and there’s no smoke without fire.’’ The ‘‘Do You Smell Smoke?’’ television spots provided a documentary-like, fly-on-the-wall look inside the offices of a fictional tobacco company and centered on an amoral executive named Ken Lane, who explained ways in which the tobacco industry duped consumers. In ‘‘Lights,’’ Lane was shown expounding on the fallacious perception that light cigarettes were better than regular cigarettes for one’s health, explaining the manufacturing details that supposedly reduced tar and nicotine but in actuality did not, and marveling at the effectiveness of industry advertising that spread this misconception. A print ad running under the same tagline meanwhile pointed out the tobacco companies’ alleged targeting of children despite the fact that the practice had been outlawed. Showing a young boy standing at a convenience store counter surrounded by numerous tobacco advertisements and transfixed by a large image of the Marlboro man at eye level, the ad’s copy read, ‘‘Kid: 45 inches’’ and ‘‘Poster: 45 inches.’’
Ground Zero supplemented the anti-industry advertising with work that addressed the dangers of secondhand smoke and work that encouraged cessation. One 2002 television spot promoted the latter objective with particular force. Called ‘‘Echo,’’ the spot featured a series of young, healthy-looking smokers who gave common excuses for why they could not quit smoking. Each statement in turn was juxtaposed with a statement from an overtly suffering, but not noticeably older, former smoker. A young man opened the commercial by noting with a smile that he could not ‘‘go more than a few hours without a cigarette,’’ and his statement was followed by that of an emaciated man with tubes in his nose grimly saying, ‘‘I can’t go more than a few feet without the oxygen tank.’’ Similarly a healthy woman explained that she tried to quit smoking but gave up because she gained five pounds; her speech gave way to that of a female cancer patient saying, near tears, ‘‘I’ve lost twenty-five pounds.’’ The spot closed with on-screen text that said, ‘‘Quitting is hard. Not quitting is harder.’’ No strategic changes were made to Ground Zero’s CDHS work until 2004, when the theme ‘‘Undo’’ was applied to the campaign’s television, print, outdoor, and online advertising as a means of asking consumers to visualize a world without smoking. One television spot used the tagline ‘‘Undo tobacco everywhere’’ and images of people in commonplace smoking locations and positions who instead of smoking were blowing bubbles. Another spot, tagged ‘‘Undo the exploitation,’’ returned to the theme of tobacco-executive villainy by equating excellence in the business with a willingness to exploit the most vulnerable of all possible targets, young children. Another 2004 spot, ‘‘Growth,’’ showed tobacco executives in a conference room who began uncontrollably birthing clones from their chests until suit-wearing clones covered the city streets outside the company offices. The image of irrepressible growth intentionally conflated tobacco-industry market gains and cancer, an idea underscored by on-screen text reading, ‘‘The more they grow, the more we die.’’
The 2001 Ken Lane commercials so effectively impugned the integrity of tobacco-industry executives that the tobacco companies R.J. Reynolds and Lorillard filed a lawsuit alleging, as Adweek reported, that the spots ‘‘violated their constitutional rights and had a prejudicial effect on potential jurors in lawsuits related to smoking.’’ The lawsuit was ultimately rejected. ‘‘Echo’’ was voted one of Adweek ’s Best Spots of 2002. California’s adult smoking rates remained lower than those in all other U.S. states except Utah: only 16.2 percent of the California population, as of 2003, were smokers, down from the 1988 rate of 22.8 percent. In 2004 the state’s smoking rate reached a historic low of 15.4 percent, and state public health officer Dr. Richard J. Jackson announced, ‘‘Our messages about the dangers of tobacco use, secondhand smoke and the tobacco industry’s misleading marketing practices are resonating with all Californians.’’ Jackson further noted that California’s smoking-related cancer rates were then declining three times faster than were rates among other Americans and declared that California would continue to spread its antitobacco message as long as tobacco products were sold.