California Revamps Its Campaign Against Smoking

It is easy to create advertising that sells a product. It is more difficult to create advertising that un-sells a smoking sign

That is the challenge that has long confronted those who work on campaigns intended to discourage smoking. Case in point, the tobacco control program of the California Department of Public Health.

From 1990, when the program began, to 2009, the last year for which data are available, the rate of smoking among California adults declined 42 percent, to 13.1 percent from 22.7 percent. The 2009 rate was at its lowest level ever.

The state is continuing to make progress, the department reports, in discouraging tobacco use, limiting exposure to secondhand smoke and reducing the effects of tobacco on health.

For instance, research shows that more smokers in California are trying to cut back on how many days they smoke each week. The percentage of smokers who do not light up every day has almost doubled from 1992, when it was 14.8 percent, to 2008, when it reached 28.1 percent.

Still, the public health department sees disparities in its ability to change behavior. For example, there are these divides:

  • Rural parts of the state still smoke at higher rates than urban areas.
  • Men still smoke at higher rates than women.
  • Californians with less education still smoke at higher rates than residents who are college graduates.
  • Households with incomes less than $20,000 a year are more than twice as likely to contain smokers as households with annual incomes of $150,000 or more.

As a result, the department is continuing the tobacco control program into a third decade. New advertising is now coming from RPA in Santa Monica, Calif.

“A lot of people think the problem’s been taken care of,” says Colleen Stevens, chief of the tobacco control media campaign for the public health department in Sacramento, Calif.

But at the same time, “a lot of packs of cigarettes” are still being sold each year, she adds.

The campaign is financed by a penny from each pack sold in the state, part of a 25-cents-a-pack tax that was approved in 1988. The annual budget for the campaign in recent years has ranged from $14 million to $16 million.

The new ads are the first work from RPA since the agency was chosen by the department in July 2009 in a mandated review for its account. RPA succeeded Ground Zero in Los Angeles, which had handled the assignment since 2000.

“We thought RPA’s creative capacity, media-buying capacity and solid research abilities were a nice package for what we wanted,” Ms. Stevens says.

RPA is best known for its ads for the Honda and Acura brands sold by American Honda Motor. The department awarded RPA a three-year contract that began in September 2009; there is an option for a two-year extension.

From the time that RPA took over the account until now, the department has been running ads that were approved in 2008. During those months, “we really went back to the drawing board,” Ms. Stevens says, asking, “Are our strategies still working?”

After re-examining what the department was doing through steps like convening focus groups and rounds of test ads, a decision was made to continue addressing three topics on which the campaign has been concentrating.

Ms. Stevens lists those topics as “educating people about secondhand smoke, countering pro-smoking messages that the tobacco industry sends out and cessation,” or encouraging people to stop smoking.

In the area of cessation, the new ads include a television commercial soon to start running, called “Don’t Stop Fighting.” The spot casts a man’s battle to stop smoking as a war with himself.

The man is sitting on a sofa next to a man who looks exactly like him. The man eyes a pack of cigarettes across the room and tries to grab it, only to be tackled by his lookalike.

As they struggle, an announcer says: “Quitting is a fight you can’t let yourself lose. It can take many tries, but keep trying. You will beat smoking.”

The commercial ends with a woman in the room asking, “Honey, you O.K.?” Now there is only one man on the sofa, and he replies, “Yeah, I’m fine.” Superimposed onscreen is a number for viewers to call (1-800-NO-BUTTS) to get more information about quitting cigarettes.

In the realm of countering what the department calls “pro-tobacco influences” is a commercial that began running on Jan. 10, called “Emerging Man.”

The title stems from a production technique used to make the spot that is reminiscent of the continuously changing scenes in the Old Spice body wash commercials. As a man in the spot describes how California has been in the forefront of reducing the ill effects of smoking, he magically starts in one place and turns up in another, over and over again.

“California should be proud,” the man begins, walking down the aisle of an airplane. “We were the first to ban smoking on airplanes, and the first to have smoke-free bars and restaurants.”

The man crawls into a beverage cart in the aisle, emerging inside a restaurant. Then he steps into a fountain in the courtyard of the restaurant, emerging in a fish tank inside an office. And so on.

At the end of the spot, the man has wound up in the maternity ward of a hospital, dressed in doctor’s whites and cradling a baby.

“But even if you were born today,” the man says, “you’d still grow up in a world where tobacco kills more people than AIDS, drugs, alcohol, murder and car crashes” — and he pauses — “combined.”

“We have a lot more work to do,” the man concludes.

Another commercial that began running on Jan. 10 also seeks to serve as a counterpoint to the blandishments of the tobacco industry. The commercial brings back Debi Austin, who appeared in an ad that was part of the California anti-tobacco campaign in 1997.

In the commercial, called “Stages,” Ms. Austin describes how she started smoking at age 13, succumbing to the appeals of the tobacco industry to look cool and grown-up. “Don’t be Big Tobacco’s next victim,” she urges.

The commercial ends with the Web address of the campaign superimposed onscreen.

The commercial, and a second spot with Ms. Austin that is scheduled to start running soon, are created by Acento Advertising in Los Angeles, an agency that specializes in ads aimed at Spanish-speaking consumers.

Acento is a subcontractor of RPA’s on the campaign, along with the A Partnership in Pasadena, Calif., which specializes in ads aimed at Asian-American consumers.

RPA worked hard to learn “what would push the campaign forward,” says Scott McDonald, vice president and creative director.

One determination was that “most people relate to smoking now as secondhand smoke exposure,” he adds, “because they don’t smoke anymore.” That reinforced the decision to keep secondhand smoke as one of the campaign’s focuses.

Another way of moving the campaign ahead is a commercial in the works titled “Thrown Away.” The spot represents “the first time we’ve talked about cigarettes and the environment,” Mr. McDonald says, based on a belief that “a cigarette is the most-littered item on earth.”

The commercial is presented from the point of view of a cigarette as it is being smoked. It soon becomes a discarded cigarette butt.

The butt travels from a curb into a storm drain, then on a trashy journey until it arrives on a beach, where a dog sniffs it. “Cigarette butts are toxic,” an announcer declares, “and millions are polluting our environment.”

Another way of pushing the campaign forward, according to Mr. McDonald, is a “modernized” tone for the cessation commercial depicting the smoking fighting with himself to quit.

“We’ve found encouragement moves the needle the most,” Mr. McDonald says, because it can take someone “14 times to stop smoking.”

“That may not motivate you,” he adds, “but it may motivate you if I told you that every moment you’re not smoking, you’re winning.”


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