Coming Apart at the Theme

Free-Range Thinking | November 2001

Philip Morris’ anti-smoking ads say, “Think. Don’t Smoke.” but that’s not the message their teenage audience is hearing.

In “Are You Connecting?” an essay I wrote recently for the California Association of Nonprofits, I submit this proposition: every public communications effort has the opportunity to connect with its target audience on four levels. They are:

  • Theme: the core (and often unspoken) message of the campaign.
  • Words: the language you use to express your theme.
  • Transfer: how you package and deliver your message (i.e., spokesperson, choice of media).
  • Ask: the request for activism, money, or simply awareness of the problem.

When you connect on all four levels, you vastly increase your chances of eliciting the desired response. A single point of disconnection, however, can undermine even a multimillion dollar effort, as a 1999 study of anti-smoking advertising clearly proves.

That study, a “Counter-Tobacco Advertising Exploratory,” was conducted by Teen Research Unlimited (TRU) of Northbrook, Ilinois. TRU screened ten anti-smoking television commercials for small groups of teens (5-7 participants per group.) Eight ads were chosen from campaigns produced by the states of Arizona, California, Florida, and Massachusetts, and two were selected from a campaign produced by Philip Morris. As part of Big Tobacco’s 1998 settlement deal, Philip Morris was required to produce anti-smoking advertising, and the company sunk $100-million into the effort in 1999 alone. TRU’s research would ultimately show, however, that “sunk” was precisely the right word.

Between January and March, TRU conducted 20 groups in three states (Arizona, California, and Massachusetts). The teenage participants viewed special versions of the spots in which the name and logo of the ad’s creator were deleted. After all ten commercials were played, viewers were asked to identify the spots produced by Philip Morris. In group after group, an overwhelming percentage of participants made the correct choices, even though all ten spots were professionally executed and ended with the tagline, “Think. Don’t Smoke.”

Why were Philip Morris’ ads so easy to identify? The answer is evident in the scripts themselves. Below is the script for “Pam Laffin,” a spot produced by the Massachusetts Department of Health:

[Pam Laffin, filmed in black-and-white and looking tired and overweight, speaks directly to the camera. As she talks, images of her younger, fitter, and more attractive self are intercut.]

Two frames from “Pam Laffin,” the 30-second story of a girl who smoked to look older.

“I started smoking when I was ten because I wanted to look older. And I got hooked. Cigarettes gave me asthma and bronchitis, but I couldn’t quit. I didn’t quit until I got emphysema and had a lung removed. I was 24. I’m 26 now. My medication, which I’ll take for the rest of my life, left me with this fat face and a lump on my neck. I started smoking to look older, and I’m sorry to worked.”

Now read the script for “Bus,” from Philip Morris’ “Choice” campaign:

[A teenager boards a school bus and finds a seat among friends. Throughout this process, he talks to an off-camera interviewer.]

Interviewer: Hey guys, can I ask you a couple of questions?
Teenager: Go ahead, all right.
Interviewer: Have you ever tried cigarettes?
Teenager: Nope.
Interviewer: Why not?
Teenager: I don’t know. I just never wanted to, you know what I mean?
Interviewer: Really?
Teenager: Yeah, I mean some of my friends tried it or whatever, somebody’ll have a pack after school, and y’know, they’ll smoke it or whatever.
Interviewer: Do you think they tried it because other people were doing it?
Teenager: Yeah, yeah, but that’s dumb, though, ya see what I’m sayin’? I mean the reason that it’s dumb – not they’re dumb – but that’s a stupid reason to do anything.

Where “Pam Laffin” plainly (and disturbingly) visualizes the risks of smoking, “Bus” focuses on the issue of choice. While it presents its case in the familiar idiom of teenagers and flashes the “Think. Don’t Smoke.” message on screen at the end, the underlying theme of the spot completely undermines the text. Teenagers in TRU’s discussion groups picked up this meta-message, reporting that “Bus” more strongly implied smoking was their decision as opposed to the wrong decision.

Compared to the other anti-smoking ads, “Bus” was on an equal footing where the connecting points of wordstransfer, and ask were concerned, but it completely disconnected with its audience on the level of theme, and the teens admitted it would not deter them from smoking. (Of course, one could conjecture that Philip Morris deliberately sponsored an ineffective campaign, but that would imply tobacco companies don’t have the best interests of their customers at heart.) The point to remember here is that you have four points to remember: four points of connection that must all be made to give your message a fighting chance.


 free-range follow-up

Inspiration Point

In the ongoing battle to preserve wilderness, facts about acres lost and species threatened may change a few minds, but if you want to win hearts, too, you would do well to remember these words from Wallace Stegner:

“We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”


If We’re All in This Together.
How Do You Fight the Good Fight?

One of the positive aspects of this post-9/11 world is “the new civility,” which may already be fading in some quarters but still poses problems for public interest advocates. If you’re dealing with government agencies, corporations, or others who appear intent on compromising our quality of life, how do you fight back in a climate of cooperation? Celinda Lake, a respected national pollster who’s been closely tracking American attitudes over the last several weeks, offers these do’s and don’ts:

  • Don’t question your opponent’s motives. The public is not responding to this tactic, especially if your opponent is an elected leader (i.e., the people we’re all putting our faith in these days.)
  • Don’t call your opponent radical, extremist, or far right. This kind of name calling is also unpopular, and “extremism” in particular carries very dark connotations right now.
  • Do say you have a disagreement over how the issue is being handled. This calls attention to the issue without impugning the integrity of your opponent.
  • Do argue that the other side is moving “too fast,” “too far,” or that “they have not thought through” their proposed solution. With events moving so quickly nowadays, most people are content to maintain as much of the status quo as they can, so the “slow down” argument has strong appeal.

Above all, Lake cautions against any argument that even hints at exploiting the current situation. Emotions are running so high now that the backlash against perceived opportunists would undoubtedly be damaging. In short, don’t be afraid to go negative, but do proceed with great care.