Hostile Audience? Tell ’em to “Take it Outside”

Free-Range Thinking | August 2001

The Kansas Health Foundation’s campaign to protect children from secondhand smoke is a textbook case of designing and delivering a message that a hostile audience can hear.

Bob Hamrick knew he had his work cut out for him the moment he entered a smokers chat room on the Internet. “One of the scariest places I ever visited,” he confided during our telephone interview. Hamrick’s Wichita-based advertising agency, Sullivan, Higdon & Sink, had been invited by the Kansas Health Foundation (KHF) to submit a proposal for a campaign against secondhand smoke. In his research, Hamrick studied smoker attitudes and discovered a volatile mix of belligerence and paranoia, including chat room postings like this:

“They want to take our cigarettes. And they’ll do anything to do that. In five years, they’ll be locking us up in concentration camps. Is this what American soldiers died for?”

“These people wanted to vent about how their rights weren’t being taken into consideration,” Hamrick recalled. Labeling them a “hostile audience” was an understatement. Nevertheless, smokers remained an audience that had to be reached. “Tobacco is the leading cause of death and disability in Kansas,” said Tami Bradley, KHF’s Vice President of Communications. Tobacco’s victims, however, extend well beyond smokers. According to Kansas State University, “150,000 to 300,000 bronchitis and pneumonia cases in infants and young children [each year] are attributable to exposure to secondhand smoke.” A California study connected 2,700 cases of sudden infant death syndrome annually nationwide to secondhand smoke. In 1996, Bradley’s foundation decided it was time to fight back.

Preliminary audience research revealed that the primary target for the campaign (smokers 18-54 years old) was not convinced secondhand smoke is a problem. Moreover, they felt “persecuted,” angrily claiming to have been chased out of public buildings and restaurants and left with only two safe havens: their cars and homes. This posed a particular problem in Kansas where 40% of homes with children had at least one smoker (and 75% of these households reported that smoking was occurring within the home.) Impressed by the detailed research behind Sullivan, Higdon & Sink’s proposal, Bradley hired the firm and set Hamrick to the task of designing the message that would pierce the clouds of smoke and reach this audience.

One of the first things Hamrick did was study similar anti-smoking efforts around the country. “We looked at every other campaign,” he reported, “and the people whose action they wanted to change were seen as the villains.” Hamrick recognized the inherent problems of this approach. “The only people who could make this campaign a success were smokers,” he concluded, so his commercials would portray them in an entirely different light. Their decision to stop smoking around others (particularly children) would be portrayed as their gift to give. The KHF campaign, in short, would make smokersĀ heroes.

In April 1997, the multimedia “Take it Outside” campaign had its first test run in Wichita. Television viewers saw a series of heart-tugging ads, including one in which a young girl (talking directly to the camera) asks her mother to stop smoking in her presence. “I know that if you knew how it makes me feel, you wouldn’t do it,” she pleads, her voice cracking with emotion. I asked Bradley if the foundation, with its mission to protect the health of Kansans, was conflicted about sponsoring a campaign that could be interpreted as condoning smoking. “We struggled with it internally,” she admitted, “but what it really came down to was: what are we trying to do here? We’re trying to protect children from secondhand smoke. If we tell smokers to stop smoking, we’ll have wasted our money because nobody will hear it.”

The foundation did not waste its money – far from it, in fact. By departing from traditionally negative portrayals of smokers, the campaign connected with its intended audience. According to an independent evaluation conducted by the University of Missouri, the target audience’s awareness of the problems of secondhand smoke soared 200% within the first 3 months of the campaign. Smokers interviewed prior to the campaign who said it was “too much trouble” to go outside dropped from 38% to 28% in the same short period. And Bob Hamrick reported that the number of people who agreed with the statement, “I have a right to smoke in my own home.” was eventually cut by more than half.

Ultimately, the campaign was so successful that KHF repeated it in August and September last year, and the Center for Disease Control has helped syndicate “Take it Outside” in five other states. The earmark of success that means the most to Bob Hamrick, however, is a single e-mail he received from a smoker who had seen one of his TV commercials. The e-mail read, “THANK YOU for running the TV campaign. I WAS a smoker of about 23 years. One nite me and my 9 year old daughter was watching tv. Then bam on came your commercial (the one with the little girl). When it was over Brittany (my daughter) looked at me and said wow dad that is how I feel. That was all I needed to hear! I QUIT!! So for that I thank you.”

Now there’s a pause that refreshes.