Cigarettes cause wrinkles? Snore. It's time to fix anti-smoking ads

Anti-tobacco ads fall prey to stereotypes of adolescence instead of tapping teens' emotions

An older woman I know is struggling against emphysema. Though she still gets around locally from time to time, she’s often too exhausted. A flight of stairs is about all she can muster; on cold days, making it even from the handicapped parking spot into a building can be too much. She frequently depends on an oxygen tank, is given low-dose morphine to ease her breathing and is in hospice care. Her chances of seeing the high school graduation of her teenage grandson are unlikely at best.

Smokers and potential smokers could learn so much from seeing this sad situation up close. This woman, now in her 70s, is beloved. She is a brilliant thinker who has always taken an interest in politics and social issues. A former social worker, she has volunteered almost all her life to help others. She has no other serious physical ailments. She could have lived for 10 years, 20 years more, possibly have seen her youngest grandchild, a toddler, become an adult. That’s not going to happen because of her longtime cigarette addiction.

This is the real effect that cigarettes have on lives, boiled down to the essence: not the diagnoses and the risks but the pain of losing loved ones and the anger toward a destructive, deadly product and toward the manufacturers that have manipulated people into killing themselves with it.

So I’m glad to see that the Food and Drug Administration, barred from requiring gross graphic ads on cigarette packs, has begun a new series of anti-smoking ads targeting teenagers. At the same time, it's frustrating that, as with most of these well-meaning public messages, a lot of money is being spent on lukewarm messaging. Not that the ads aren’t being seen by the target audience; my 16-year-old daughter and her friends encounter them constantly, before viewing their favorite YouTube music videos. But being seen by kids and reaching those kids are two different things. And from the comments I hear, and from my own viewing of the videos, I wonder how the government dreams of preventing smoking with such lame, mildly attention-getting commercials.

It’s not that anti-smoking campaigns need the ick factor of emaciated cancer victims pulling wigs over their bald heads and breathing with the aid of oxygen tanks. Fear ads can cause their own backlash. What the commercials really lack is feeling.

One commercial in the “Real Cost” series shows a beer-bellied low-life “bullying” a teenager by taking his money and dragging him outside to smoke — the bully, of course, being cigarettes. In another, a whiny “Valley girl” type complains about her controlling love partner — who is, of course, also a cigarette. A third ad warns girls against wrinkled skin caused by smoking, and a fourth has a youth pulling a tooth out to pay for cigarettes — the message being that smoking can cause gum disease.

The ads simultaneously overrate and underrate adolescent thinking. Teenagers aren’t going to be impressed by the comic-book version of a bully; vanity-inspired threats of wrinkles aren’t enough to overcome an addictive habit; the possibility of losing teeth appears too far off to worry about.

Worse, these are pretty ineffective commercials from any point of view. They appeal to the intellect, the rational side, to combat a behavior that does not have its roots in rational, thought-out decision-making. If logical thinking governed smoking, cigarettes would have all but disappeared decades ago.

We’re forgetting about what matters to teenagers more than their image and what their friends are doing. We're too easily trapped by the stereotypes of adolescence — shallowness, concern about looks, desire for money — turning teenagers off instead of reaching them by remembering what they care about: They care intensely about the people they love.

That’s what I ponder when I think about my friend who might have lived to see so many more moments of her grandchildren’s lives had she not taken up the smoking habit and ignored her kids’ pleas to stop. I think of what will be robbed from her and from the young people who love her. And I fantasize about finely-tuned ads that could tell heartbreaking mini-stories: of a teenager who realizes that a father will not be there for a commencement, or an uncle who cannot attend a quinceanera, or a grandparent gone before a bar mitzvah, because cigarettes made those loved ones die painfully and too soon.

How about if we tried combating smoking with anger over the suffering it causes, and love and regret toward those stricken by its evils? For as long as I can remember, we have missed the real emotional mark with public service ads, combating industrial giants and their well-paid advertising firms that are so talented tapping at manipulating the public’s emotions.

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