How to Sell Cigarettes to Kids

Copyright 1998 Dow Jones & Co., Inc.
Wall Street Journal (April 23, 1998)

Enthusiasm for picking the tobacco companies' pockets ought not get in the way of intelligent understanding. Bill Clinton the other day intoned that "Medical science and common sense make it plain: teen smoking has everything to do with Joe Camel--with unscrupulous marketing campaigns that prey on the insecurities and dreams of our children."

Well, their ads are no doubt meant to sell cigarettes, but it would be news to folks in marketing if advertising could produce such a cyclonic shift in the smoking habits of kids. People who spend billions on it know to their sorrow that advertising is a weak force, ignored by most consumers most of the time. Otherwise, we'd all be senseless from the thousands of pitches bombarding us.

Rather, advertising seems to work only on those who are already in the market for a message. Media consultant Erwin Ephron calls it the empty cereal box effect: An ad for corn flakes will pass over the head of anybody who didn't just run out of corn flakes that morning.

The best answer yet for the anomalous rise in black teenage smoking, up 80% in six years, is that cigarettes go well with marijuana, whose rising consumption is another hallmark of the Clinton years. Ads for brands like Newports and Kools may signal brand choice, but only larger cultural influences can account for such a dramatic surge for a tired old product.

Black kids still smoke far less than white ones, so the rise in white teenage smoking, up 33% over the same six years, will be of most interest to students of the cereal box principle. It has a corollary: A message delivered as "news" is more potent than one delivered as "advertising," against which we have our defenses up. And the message teenagers are in the market for is one of independence, rebellion and risk-taking.

The biggest signal out there lately has been coming not from the cigarette companies but from the politicians, who have made the cigarette chic again. Dr. Stanton Glantz is a heart specialist and anti-smoking campaigner at the University of California at San Francisco. He was already warning two years ago that the Clintonites had created "a monster" when they decided to use kids to flog their war against tobacco.

On the slight chance that anyone in Washington is really interested, "just say no" was probably the most effective message ever aimed at kids. It didn't wheedle or treat them like babies. It invited them to assert the power of choice on their own behalf.

Of course, the kids didn't have to parse out the spectacle of politicians denouncing cigarettes as a drug while trying to fill their pockets with the drug's profits.

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