Social media had an unexpected guest Monday night during the 2016 Grammy Awards. While many people were tweeting the latest red carpet looks, Taylor Swift’s multiple wins or Adele’s disastrous performance, an anti-tobacco campaign managed to take over social media. This may sound odd, considering anti-smoking ads are rarely considered trending topics or hip. However, the Truth campaign, created an ad that included our Internet favorite— cat videos. Using a montage of cute cat clips, the anti-smoking group presents the fact that cats are susceptible to secondhand smoke and are twice as likely to get cancer if their owner smokes. The video is accompanied with the hashtag #catmageddon with the logic being that smoking = no cats = no cat videos. And who would want to live in a world like that?
This isn’t the first time Truth appears at the Grammy’s. Last year, they also had a big success with “Left Swipe Dat”, an ad playing on Tinder’s growing popularity. The logic there was also simple: smoking in your profile pics = half the dating matches.
Like other Truth campaigns, these ads look to target the youngest generation of smokers, who are likely less concerned about the long-term health effects that older generations. Studies have shown that most young people don’t consider the long-term health consequences associated with tobacco use, meaning that traditional anti-smoking ads showing decaying body parts and gruesome images along with informational facts may prove ineffective. “Sometimes people don’t care enough about themselves. They do care about their pets,” says Sherry Emery, the director of the University of Illinois, Chicago’s Health Media Collaboratory. “And cat videos, of course. They capitalize on this cultural phenomenon where people just love cat videos.”
The Truth campaign is known for its innovative and bold marketing campaigns. Funded by the American Legacy Foundation, a public health organization formed in 1999 out of the Master Settlement Agreement between big tobacco companies and 46 states and five U.S. territories, it spent $28.8 million on counter marketing, communication and government affairs as well as $14 million on measured media in 2014 alone. One of the things that has made their campaign so successful is their ability to reach millennials through social media platforms, such as YouTube, Vine and Snapchat. They have also chosen dates and events with peaks in youth viewership to present their ads. For example, during the MTV Video Music Awards in August 2014, they aired an ad calling out celebrity smokers, letting them know they’d become unpaid tobacco spokespeople.
A year later, at the 2015 MTV VMAs they presented their #ItsATrap campaign. This campaign asked people “to comment and finish this sentence witt he most ridiculous social smoking excuse you’ve heard: Saying you only smoke when __________.” The best tags became lyrics in a new track produced by the organization.
The video, which features many YouTube stars and popular mainstream memes, highlights the dangers of light or intermittent smoking (e.g. smoking a cigarette or two at parties). A study published earlier this year in Pediatrics , the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, found that 25% of adolescents believe smoking on an intermittent basis poses little to no harm.
“For a lot of young people, they don’t even really consider that smoking,” said Legacy Chief Executive Robin Koval. “They’ll say, ‘Well, I don’t smoke everyday’ or ‘I don’t buy my own pack so I’m not really a smoker.’ They don’t identify themselves as smokers so they sort of give themselves permission to do something that we know is incredibly dangerous and deadly. Teens want to believe that social smoking is a casual, harmless activity, but very simply: It’s a Trap.” Legacy says one in four youth believe that social smoking — or so-called “light” smoking — poses no risk.
This anti-smoking youth campaign is one of the first to tackle social smoking, hookahs and flavored cigarettes, as smoking habits among young adults shift away from traditional cigarettes. “This is a bit of a broadening of the conversation for us,” said Eric Asche, chief marketing officer of the American Legacy Foundation, the organization behind the Truth campaign. “We have started to see success around driving down cigarette use, but our fear is that it’s a a transference of the behavior to other products.”
The long-term goal for Truth is not only to create ads but to create a brand that young adults can affiliate themselves with instead of tobacco brands. Their goal is “to inspire youth and young adults to use their creativity and social influence to spread the truth about tobacco and make this the generation that ends tobacco use”. This is done by giving teenagers the facts not only about the health and social consequences of tobacco use, but also the marketing tactics of the industry behind it.
The #BigTobaccoBeLike campaigned looked to expose the tobacco industry’s marketing strategies that target young people. In 2015, they launched several videos in which Vine stars imagine the ways the tobacco industry celebrates its massive profits. The first #BigTobaccoBeLike ad features Viner Jerry Purpdrank, who has more than 8.6 million followers on Twitter’s six-second video platform. In the first half of the video, Purpdrank gives an excuse for “social smoking,” saying “it’s strawberry flavor, bro.” He then cuts to his impression of a tobacco executive, being rained on by money. The point is a simple one: Don’t get played while Big Tobacco gets paid.
The current ongoing campaign, titled Finish It, launched in 2014. The campaign connects with today’s youth culture tapping into what’s popular, such as selfies and dating apps, and works with musicians, celebrities and online influencers. The video suggest that “We can be the generation that ends smoking” with the hashtag #FinishIt. Over the course of the Truth campaigns and up to the first Finish It ad, teen smoking rates had dropped from 23 percent to 8 percent. With the launch of the latest Finish It the numbers had dropped even more to 7 percent. Their end goal is that this eventually reach zero.
Some of these campaigns may seem odd and risky since they are so different from the more traditional public health campaigns. However, there’s ample evidence suggesting truth’s ads work. In the first two years after the campaign’s launch, it was responsible for 22% of youth smoking declines, according to a study in the American Journal of Public Health. And its online video campaigns often receive massive view counts and exposure. The point of anti-tobacco campaigns is to get people talking. And with these ads, they’re talking about tobacco.