After spending decades lying to Americans about the dangers of its products, the tobacco industry has spent the last 11 years trying to keep those lies under wraps. Since 2006, their lawyers have been fighting a court order to fess up about intentionally misleading marketing of products that manufacturers knew to be harmful. But this month, they’re coming clean with mandated disclosures over a decade in the making.
According to anti-tobacco advocacy group Truth Initiative, though, there’s a problem: the industry is following the letter of the ruling - not its spirit.
Sure, they’ll air corrective ads in major markets and print them in major outlets, but those ads will be black type on a white background, read in aired spots by a computerized voice. In other words, they’ll be unbearably boring and fade quickly from memory. So Truth is releasing its own ad, in the form of a country song performed by a (sorta) penitent cowboy. With humor and high production values, Truth hopes their version will do exactly what the industry is trying to avoid: get people’s attention.
"We were concerned that the exact audience these ads are supposed to help warn about the dangers of smoking, 18 to 24-year-olds, are not going to see them," said Eric Asche, Truth Initiative’s CMO. "We decided to make an ad that wasn’t so boring, that looked like what the tobacco industry trying to tell the truth would have looked like."
"Big Tobacco’s (Legally Mandated) Apology" is a satirical jab at the industry’s reluctance to disclose its misdeeds, co-written and co-produced with CollegeHumor, and shot in Nashville with a production company that makes country music videos. The spot hits a litany of familiar country tropes: a late-night bar scene, a barn full of horses and, of course, a cowboy in a big white hat. "We wanted to use imagery that the tobacco industry has exploited over their decades, but turn it on its head." Asche said.
That inversion happens in the lyrics, which contain all the same information as the mandated disclosures but with a funny country twang sure to grab ears.
"Over the years, we’ve used humor to connect audiences with this very serious topic, and in this creative way that would stick with the audience," said Asche.
So, this cowboy sings that smoking kills 1,200 Americans "each and every day." Cigarettes were designed to be hard to quit, something that "makes us feel like... tar" (which is "real bad"). He falls down on his knees in an open field to say he’s "very, very, very sorry" and then gets exasperated at having to do it. Funny as it may be, Asche points out that the consequences of not getting this information in front of consumers is dire.
"No matter how you phrase it, the industry was found guilty of lying, and the distribution of their campaign is almost designed not to break through the clutter," he said. "It’s not going to prevent an uptick in smoking."
Another problem: the ruling, which stated that the industry "marketed and sold their lethal products with zeal, with deception, with a single-minded focus on their financial success" was written in 2006, and so were the terms of the mandated media buy. Young people susceptible to addiction may have been watching TV and reading print media back then, but they aren’t now, or at least not nearly as much as they’re reading things online. That’s why Truth is focusing their campaign on digital and partnering with CollegeHumor, an established digital brand with the right target market.
"One of the challenges for us as a marketer is that our audience is really sensitive to being advertised to, and so the benefit of working with CollegeHumor is that it appears as legit content, and people share and talk about it," Asche said.
The settlement becoming part of the cultural conversation is exactly what the industry doesn’t want, but Asche said that’s the ultimate victory for Truth. "Our vision is to shape the cultural narrative," he added, "and sometimes that takes the form of ads, but other times, it’s a cowboy."