How Anti-Smoke Ads Get in Your Eyes

States swap the best commercials, with a federal agency as the middleman By Stuart Miller

Little known to most viewers, public- interest groups and state agencies nationwide actively trade anti-smoking commercials.

It's not at all unusual that a commercial carrying a tagline from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, for example, came from some other city or state. And such swapping goes on nationwide as social agencies discover particularly effective anti-tobacco messages.

Consider the story of smoker Pam Laffin, the 31-year-old mother whose children watched her die of emphysema. These powerful spots are currently being shown in New York, but they were produced for Massachusetts.

“The 'Pam' series is very strong and is even upsetting to some people, but it's very effective,” says Jeff Escoffier, marketing director for the New York health agency.

Clearinghouse for ads

He found the spot through the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, which runs the Media Campaign Resource Center (MCRC).

“That campaign was developed for adults, but it has proven very impactful with kids, too,” says Jeff McKenna, who was involved with MCRC from its beginnings 10 years ago. Two years ago, he was promoted to communications director for the CDC's Chronic Disease Center, which oversees the division that handles smoking.

The MCRC acts as a low-cost clearinghouse for city, county and state health departments, along with anti-smoking non-profit organizations.

It offers a catalog of innovative and emotionally compelling commercials with high production values at a low cost. Agencies or anti-smoking groups arrange to show spots produced elsewhere for a nominal fee, depending on union arrangements and whether the ad will run on a cable or broadcast outlet.

MCRC now has 683 television ads, along with hundreds of radio, print and outdoor ads, in its portfolio.

The CDC and a California state official helped form the media center a decade ago when only a few states—Massachusetts and Florida among them—were creating ads.

Counter-marketing works

After the landmark 1998 product-liability settlement forced tobacco companies to pay states billions of dollars to preempt further lawsuits, more money became available. Now better funded, many states hire top-flight ad agencies to produce memorable anti-smoking spots.

“We're much busier than we've ever been,” says Cynthia Newcomer, manager of Social and Health Services, the contractor overseeing MCRC. “There are now county, as well as state, health departments becoming involved, and the states are spending more as the awareness has grown about the effectiveness of counter-marketing.”

Joe Martyak, executive VP for marketing and communication at the American Legacy Foundation, an independent group that uses the tobacco-settlement money to produce a visceral campaign called “Truth,” says that counter-marketing works. Then again, he notes, anti-smoking campaigns fight what he calls a “Goliath” that spends up to $15 billion a year on advertising.

It is because anti-smoking ads compete against the giant tobacco companies that the ads have to be so good. It's important for budget-strapped health departments to have access to fresh ads.

Agencies have full run of the catalog, but MCRC makes recommendations and shares data on each ad that previous states collected from surveys, focus groups, hotline calls and other methods.

“As the collection has grown and gotten more sophisticated, there is now a more strategic selection of ads and a more sophisticated use of MCRC,” McKenna says, “And even with our analysis and best expertise, we suggest that everyone does local pre-testing to see if the ad still resonates.”

More attention is now paid to targeting specific ethnic or age groups—with particular emphasis on the Hispanic and African-American communities—in both the content and the placement. Newcomer says there is also an increase in requests for ads that play to working-class and low-income smokers.

Edgy and effective

New York City recently produced a spot called “Everyone Loves a Quitter,” which has a very strong New York feel. But Newcomer says that most ads are not place-specific and are able to travel well from state to state.

McKenna points out, however, that a state with a long involvement in the cause, such as New York, will be more open to an edgier spot than a place like Kentucky, which is just getting involved. State legislatures, which usually hold the purse strings, also influence which ads are chosen.

Some states share ads informally. The Michigan Department of Community Health's “It's Like They're Smoking” ads show children in the presence of adult care-givers saying things like, “I smoke when I'm watching cartoons” and “I smoke while I'm taking a bath.” Those ads deliver a tough message about the dangers of second-hand smoke.

After the spots' 2004 debut, calls to Michigan's anti-smoking hotline jumped from 120 per month to 1,000 per month. Now, that's a breath of fresh air.