The Truth About Mission and Message: They’re Not Always the Same

Free-Range Thinking | March 2001

The Florida Department of Health is keeping teenagers away from tobacco like never before. What’s the secret behind this groundbreaking anti-smoking campaign? (Hint: it’s not about health.)

Two indisputable facts about smoking: it can kill you, and it looks cool. For teenagers, fact #2 beats fact #1 like scissors cut paper – and therein lies the challenge. If your mission is convincing kids to stay away from tobacco, you have to deal with a belief system in which coolness is a much higher priority than longevity. In 1998, the Florida Department of Health accepted this challenge, knowing full well that similar state and federal agencies across the country had already spent millions trying to reduce teenage smoking. With polls indicating that 70% of high school teens were still trying cigarettes (and over 35% were becoming regular smokers), there was little cause for optimism.

Two years later, the number of Florida high school teens who reported “using tobacco in the last 30 days” had dropped by roughly 7%, while smoking among middle school teens was down almost 10%. The Florida Department of Health used these percentages to project 49,000 fewer teen smokers statewide, as well as the prevention of 16,000 tobacco-related deaths over the long term. The reason for this successful turnaround is also indisputable: a public service campaign that recognized the difference between its mission and its message.

The genesis of this campaign can be traced back to August 1997 when the landmark court case against big tobacco netted the state of Florida $11.3 billion. From these settlement funds, $200 million were earmarked for a three-year anti-smoking campaign. The Florida Department of Health decided to target teenage smoking because, as the department’s Frank Penela told me, “We wanted to change the behavior that was destroying a generation.” The settlement provided more than enough money to wage a major league campaign, but “if you don’t have a good message,” said Penela, “it doesn’t matter how much money you throw at it.”

To help craft the message, the Department of Health made a bold move, bringing in Crispin, Porter & Bogusky, a Miami-based advertising agency with no prior experience in public service advertising. What CP&B did have, however, were clients such as And 1 (basketball footwear) and Shimano (mountain bikes) which provided extensive experience marketing to teenagers. Agency president Jeff Hicks and his creative team came onboard knowing a few things about the target audience that other anti-smoking campaigns had clearly ignored.

“At twelve or thirteen you’re still spending your parents’ money, riding around in their car, and you’re looking to separate yourself from the identity they’ve given you,” Hicks explained. “Tobacco is the ultimate product to assert control. Using it says, ‘I’m an adult. I make my own decisions.’ And what bigger decision can you make than taking your life into your own hands?” Hicks knew that telling kids tobacco was bad for them was not only a waste of time – since they clearly knew this – it was actually counter-productive. “The fact that tobacco killed was the unique selling proposition for youth,” said Hicks. Highlighting this fact only made smoking cigarettes more appealing.

The CP&B team also knew that teens had a strong affinity for brands: wearing Adidas sneakers, drinking Mountain Dew, and smoking Marlboros helped shape their identities. “If we were going to take a brand away,” Hicks said, “we had to replace it with something.” This understanding led to the first conceptual breakthrough: the campaign would replace a brand with another brand – one just as cool and defining as the Marlboro Man or Joe Camel, except with an anti-smoking message built in. And to build this brand, CP&B would follow the first lesson of Marketing 101: talk to the customer.

The creative team asked teens, “What would change your mind about tobacco?” Their answers were emphatic: don’t tell me what to do. Just give me the facts. So CP&B gave them the facts – about how much money the tobacco industry spent on advertising, how many teens were smoking as a result, and how many would ultimately die due to this choice. As expected, the teenagers weren’t overly moved by the mortality figures. When they started seeing themselves as victims of manipulation and duplicity by a callous older generation, however, they got mad – and this anger provided the key to the new brand. CP&B named it “Truth.”

Using the full arsenal of broadcast, print, outdoor and online media, the Florida Department of Health launched the “Truth” campaign in 1998. The spots (created by CP&B) showed teenagers how the tobacco and advertising industries were colluding to cavalierly take their money and abuse their bodies in return for billions in profits. Rather than take away the teenagers’ desire to rebel, the campaign unveiled a new (and plainly evil) “oppressor” and made the rejection of cigarettes a hip way to strike back. For those who wanted to go further in exposing the tobacco industry’s hypocrisy, local “Truth Chapters” were established.

The Truth campaign has been so successful that health agencies from Great Britain, Ireland and Canada – as well as many state agencies – have called Penela to learn how Florida did it. As Jeff Hicks readily admits, it didn’t hurt to have “real money,” but the pivotal moment in this story was not the multi-billion dollar settlement. Sometimes in public interest communications, you have to accept that your message will look very different than your mission. When the Florida Department of Health realized this, the path to success was clear.

(To learn more about the Truth campaign, visit

 free-range follow-up

A Tip for Starting Your Next Presentation

In my workshop, “Presenting with a Purpose,” I help public interest advocates design presentations they often must deliver to the public, other advocacy groups, or (gulp) funders. There are many familiar pitfalls to be avoided (e.g., slides with too much text, monotone delivery, lack of coherent structure), but I just discovered a new one in Richard Saul Wurman’s latest book, Information Anxiety2. Wurman calls it “the disease of familiarity,” and he identifies its victims as “the experts in the world who, so bogged down by their own knowledge, regularly miss the key points as they try to explain what they know. You ask them the time, and they will tell you how to build a clock.”

How can you avoid falling victim to this disease? Wurman has an excellent suggestion: “Begin with something familiar. Give your audience at least one fact they already know and tie that into the new material you are presenting. Give initial connection to the new world that you’re bringing to them.”

And if you’d like more information about “Presenting with a Purpose,” please call or e-mail. I’d be happy to tell you more.