For decades, tobacco companies have told us that smoking keeps us thin, has no effect on our throats, and is a sure ticket to sex. Cigarettes have been endorsed by cute little babies and cartoon camels and presidents. Now, the companies are being forced to come clean. The Associated Press reports that, on Sunday, they’ll start running court-mandated ads on network television, in metro newspapers, and on pamphlets tucked into cigarette packs. Congress banned tobacco ads from TV in 1970—they’re back temporarily, but only to atone for their sins.
All this drama dates back to 1999, when the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against tobacco giants like Philip Morris and American Tobacco for lying to the public about how smoking screws with your health. In 2006, US District Judge Gladys Kessler cited overwhelming evidence of “a massive 50-year scheme to defraud the public.” That includes things like marketing to children, promoting bogus benefits of smoking, and breaking civil racketeering laws.
People who pay attention to the five 30- to 45-second TV ads will hear many truths about the risks of smoking, like “There is no safe cigarette,” “Cigarette companies intentionally designed cigarettes with enough nicotine to create and sustain addiction,” and “When you smoke, the nicotine actually changes your brain—that’s why quitting is so hard.” Each commercial has four versions, each with a different tobacco company’s name stated first.
But the TV ads aren’t exactly attention-grabbing: They display black text on a white background as a robotic-sounding voice relays the words on the screen. It’s as basic and boring as it gets. “I think after 11 years of delay, the industry has succeeded in some ways in what they intended, which is to make these as invisible and unwatchable as they possibly could,” says Robin Koval, president and CEO of the Truth Initiative, a nonprofit organization that aims to put a stop to smoking. “The saying goes, ‘justice delayed is justice denied.’”
Altria Group Inc. and British American Tobacco PLC, which own all the tobacco companies sued in the 1999 lawsuit, will cough up a total of $30 million for the year-long campaign. That’s nothing compared to what they drop on product promotion: In 2015, the tobacco industry spent $8.9 billion on ads in the US alone. That’s $24 million per day, so paying $30 million for these court-mandated ads is “a drop in the bucket” for them, Koval says.
That’s not the only way they’re getting off easy. Kessler ruled in 2012 that the ads should start with “Here is the truth,” but the tobacco industry fought that and the intro will not appear in the ads. The ads also aren’t likely to reach young people, a crucial group that the tobacco industry calls “replacement smokers.” “If younger adults turn away from smoking, the industry must decline,” one memo said in 1984. And, from a 1978 memo: “The base of our business is the high school student.”
Sixty-one percent of adults ages 18 to 29 get their entertainment from streaming services like Netflix and Hulu—not cable, according to a survey conducted by Pew Research in August. And 81 percent of people in that same age group who read the news do so online. All of this is to say that young people can continue watching their favorite shows and staying up to date on current events without ever laying their eyes on these ads.
“I think the fact that the very people who are the replacement smokers for the tobacco industry are less likely to see this is a perfect indication of how the tobacco industry works,” Koval says. She believes the ads would be much more effective if they were running on platforms like YouTube and Facebook, if they showed engaging content that’s relevant to young people, and if they included a call to action.
Take the Truth Campaign’s anti-smoking ads. In one ad, young people talk about how tobacco giants targeted people living with depression and anxiety. Another uses techno music, graphics, and footage of animals to relay the fact that if you smoke, your cat or dog is twice as likely to get cancer. “Let’s start treating our best friends like real best friends,” it says. “Be the generation that ends smoking.” (There’s even a similar ad for cat lovers: “Smoking = no cats = no cat videos,” it warns.)
It’s good that the tobacco industry’s ads will finally air, Koval says. “But if you think of it in the context of every other piece of tobacco advertising promotion that’s out there that young people and adults and smokers are seeing, this is just a little blip on the radar screen,” she adds. “I would say if they really were going to correct their actions, they would stop selling a product that kills [up to] half of its users. That would be corrective.”