Any kid who grew up with cable television for a babysitter in the late 1990s will remember those amazingly cheese ball anti-smoking advertisements. You got home from school and you were just ready to decompress from all the stress of doing 50 long division problems by hand on a timed test while also navigating the perilous waters of trying to fit in and learning grade school level social skills.
So you tuned in to Hey Dude, Salute Your Shorts, The Secret World of Alex Mack, The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo, or maybe Sabrina The Teenage Witch, Are You Afraid of the Dark, or So Weird. But first, a word from the sponsors. In addition to advertisements for Duncan Butterfly yo-yos and Larami Super Soakers, you definitely saw these tobacco industry-produced anti-smoking PSAs, and your subconscious probably scoffed.
As it turns out, that's exactly what the tobacco lobby was expecting you to do. Of course these crafty devils designed the "anti-smoking" PSAs to send kids subliminal messages that actually make them want to smoke more! And that's exactly what happened according to several scientific studies of these public service announcements and their effect on youth smoking. As it turns out, these anti-smoking ads were actually cigarette commercials in disguise!
How did this happen? Well in the United States, we have freedom of speech guaranteed in the First Amendment of the Constitution and it's taken pretty seriously. So it is kind of weird that there are laws against tobacco companies advertising on television. Sure cigarettes do kill you, so does refined sugar. It's a high risk factor for heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, which are Killers #1, #2, and #7 in the United States. And there are non-stop advertisements on television for sugary cereal (targeting the kids!) and carbonated sugar water beverages in branded plastic bottles. Drink up, lab rat.
But maybe it's not so weird after all. Maybe cigarette companies have pulled off the ultimate long con, accepting the laws against advertising and even accepting requirements that they advertise against themselves in order to appear responsible and morally conscious while actually being even more evil, greedy, and sneaky than we even think they are!
15 Talk to Your Kids About Not Smoking
What's the easiest and quickest way to get a bunch of teens to start smoking? The obvious answer to evil marketers is: get their parents to tell them not to! And it worked! See the above smoking ad from 1999, paid for by Philip Morris USA. I would have loved to be sitting in the boardroom to see the smug looks on their faces when some evil bastard pointed out they could get all the moral credibility for running the ad, while actually encouraging a bunch of stupid parents to do the one thing that would make their rebellious teens want to smoke more then peer pressure, telling them they can't. The really freaky part is that parents didn't even have to talk to their kids to increase their chances of smoking. According to one study by the University of California in 2006, just seeing the parent-targeted ads increased the odds of a 10th or 12th grader smoking by 12% for every ad they saw on television.
14 Think, Don't Smoke (Monkey Commercial)
Or watch this one. What do you think? It's so cornball any teenager watching would feel like their dad could have made it -- and instantly, viscerally feel like smoking must be a cool thing to do, just enough in their subconscious minds to push some of them over the edge into a very lucrative lifelong addiction the next time they're pressured by a peer into smoking a cigarette. If this cheesy ad speaks for the anti-smoking people, I definitely want to be part of the smoking crowd. "Mwa ha ha ha ha ha!" laugh the evil tobacco corporations as they totally get away with creating an entire new generation of smokers while getting the credit for educating children not to smoke. A 2002 study by the American Journal of Public Health found that after being exposed to this "Think, Don't Smoke" ad campaign, teens were 36% MORE likely to take up smoking.
13 Think, Don't Smoke (Your Everything)
Okay, try this one. It just feels like a lecture from your parents. Those kids are obviously mouthing the things their parents would expect them to say and it feels like it: "My intelligence... My body... My style... My ambition... My obligations to myself... My genius... My strength... My goals... My mom... My potential... My future... My knowledge... My endurance... My life..." The way they all follow the same formula even though they're adding different reasons, and saying it in the same tone gives it a creepy feel like they're all part of some cult. It makes them seem so conformist. Any remotely independent-minded teenager, which is a lot of them, or even any teenager who thinks they're independent-minded, which is all of them, will want to go out and smoke a pack just to be different from these drones. When the one kid says "My mom," it's hilarious. That's the commercial's Freudian slip. These kids aren't saying all this. It's their moms talking.
12 Think, Don't Smoke (What You Don't Do)
"My parents. They always think I'm not listenin' -I hear 'em." The way she says "listenin'" like damn, look at this rebel over here leaving the G's off her words. But more importantly, listen to what the next students says: "Wait a minute. You know: Everyday you have to deal with stuff on your own." Now put it all together. "My parents. They always think I'm not listenin' -I hear 'em." Then the voice of reason weighs in and says, "Wait a minute. You know: Everyday you have to deal with stuff on your own." That's subliminal messaging right there. There's no context for what the second girl says. It makes no sense. Why would she say "Wait a minute?" The only context for it is what the girl says right before her. If you were just reading the transcript, they would sound like they're having a debate. The tobacco company sneaks in its real message: Don't listen to your parents. You have to deal with stuff on your own.
11 Rob McElhenney Thinks and Doesn't Smoke
Here's a real classic of the genre we're exploring today, not least of which because it features a young, brooding Rob McElhenney of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. If someone as cool and edgy as this kid doesn't smoke, I can be just as cool and still have my own personal reasons not to smoke. That's the apparent way the ad operates, to the delight of concerned parents everywhere. But subliminally, what do the kids learn from this ad? That this cool, ballsy kid, who makes no effort to conceal his contempt for this adult behind the camera, who even mouths off to him at the end with a terse, "We finished?" decided on his own not to smoke cigarettes after also deciding on his own (at the age of 14!) to give them a try (to impress other 14 year olds who were ostensibly even cooler than he was and were smoking!). So every teenager watching aged 14+ just learned that the cool kids, the fearless, non-conformists out there, are trying cigarettes at age 14 and cool enough to have already quit smoking by senior prom. That should have been the title for this ad. "So Cool, He Already Quit Smoking By Senior Prom."
10 Think, Don't Smoke (A Stupid Reason To Do Anything)
Again, this commercial shows a cool teenager explaining why he's made the choice not to smoke, except the young viewer knows that his coolness is being appropriated, his style is being used to sell them a message that really came from their parents: "That's a stupid reason to do anything" = "If all your friends jumped off a bridge would you jump off with them?" That's obviously your parents talking. But what did kids learn who watched this ad?
Attuned to learning the goings-on of their youth society and how to fit in and be accepted (which is really not stupid at all, it's actually a quite healthy tendency in a lot of ways), all these kids watching heard the cool teenager on the bus say that a bunch of people their age are trying cigarettes: "I mean some of my friends tried it or whatever, somebody will have a pack after school..." "And do you think they tried it because other people were doing it?" "Yeah, yeah." Smoking cigarettes: a lot of kids your age are doing it. And none of your friends have ever actually jumped off a bridge, so...
9 Tobacco Is Whacko – If You’re A Teen
In this anti-smoking PSA -- which kind of has a Requiem For a Dream feel to it (which hit theaters the following year), except instead of smoking crack, they're making eggs for breakfast-- some teens are shown living in filthy squalor and doing gross things like cooking in a dirty kitchen and scratching their butts. But when one of them pulls out a pack of cigarettes, the others immediately rebuke him: "That's gross!" Brrrriiipp! The sound of a record scratch punctuates the total awkwardness of the faux pas this hapless teenage smoker just committed, how harshly he's being judged by his trashy friends. Then the real message gets tattooed to the inside of every young viewer's soft skull: "Tobacco is Whacko. If you're a teen." Translation: Smoking separates the real adults from mere teenagers. Smoking makes you more mature and grown up.
8 Cigarettes Kill
Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy, are we in trouble or what? This PSA wasn't even done by the tobacco industry. It was made by the non-profit Deborah Hutton Campaign, based out of London. So deep are we in the Matrix at this point, however, that the ad-makers had subconsciously absorbed the style and intent of the tobacco lobby's "anti-smoking" PSAs and regurgitated it right back out to function in the same way. It's like the blind leading the blind out there. This PSA looks more like a comedian’s sarcastic rebuttal of the notion that cigarettes kill people than a serious message that cigarettes actually do kill. The standup comic lights one up and says, “Who here thinks cigarettes kill people? What do they do? Pull a gun out and shoot you?” *cue laughter* Besides, that cigarette looks incredibly cute and funny. It's even smoking a cigarette at the beginning of the ad. Is that like...cannibalism?
7 You Could End Up Looking Like This
Sure you “could” end up looking like this But you might not. In fact, every day, you see people smoking cigarettes who don't look like that at all. And now you can’t unsee all the glamorous images they associated with smoking. Your subconscious heard strings of words like, "Tough hard working people smoke their cigarettes... You'll look cool, hip, rebellious... Smoking makes you independent, beautiful, mysterious..." And even though the ad is telling you that it's an illusion, they played out the illusion for your mind to see and when it comes time to puff or pass, the human mind is very good at selective memory and repressing what it doesn’t want to remember. And good God, does it not want to remember that poor guy hooked up to oxygen at the end of that ad. They didn't even give both arguments equal time. Most of the ad was pro-smoking. And it was lots of people. Then you get like seven seconds of one unlucky person complaining that they got cancer. Didn't your friend's great grandma smoke til she was 80 and never have a problem?
6 Choosing To Smoke Affects Everyone...
This anti-smoking ad illustrates the dangers and evils of second-hand smoke, but it's probably a safe bet that it serves as a justification for teenagers to try smoking, in the form of: "Got it. Smoking is evil if you're a parent in the 21st century and still smoking inside your freaking house and blowing the smoke in your six-year-old daughter's face. Jeez. Or seriously dumb enough to be smoking between inhaler puffs while you're pregnant and saying 'Let's just hope my choices only affect me.' LMAO. Good God, those people are doing us a favor weeding themselves out of the gene pool. Hand them a Darwin Award. Since I'm just hanging out with my friends and they're all smoking and it's just one cigarette... at least I'm not evil like those basket cases."
5 Just Imagine If They Lost You For Life...
Look, if you make a bad argument for your side, you're making an argument for the other side. Because that's what people's brains are going to do. Whether they're consciously aware of it or not. Smoking hardly kills anyone fast enough to orphan their toddler. Some people lose their parents earlier than others because of smoking, but it's usually not knocking out 32 year olds and leaving their preschool children alone in the great busy airport that we call life. We know that because the CDC lists unintentional injuries and suicide as the #1 and #2 causes of death for that age group. Cancer and heart disease don't start in until people hit their late 40s and beyond. And besides, I'm not going to smoke hard enough for that to be a problem anyways. This ad isn't aimed at me. I'm just going to smoke this one...
4 Smoking Kills
Again, what in blazes kind of anti-smoking ad is this? This isn't an anti-smoking message. This makes fun of the idea that smoking kills. It says, "Sure I guess smoking could kill, like if some guy who smokes and does flooring for people's houses thought he had carpeted right over his cigarette pack in the middle of a room and thought he'd save himself another couple of un-billable hours of labor fixing his problem by just smashing the cigarette pack under the new carpet to flatten it out, but then realizes it was the little girl who lives in the house's hamster... then sure, I guess cigarettes could kill a hamster in a round-about way." Most importantly, that guy's really going to need to burn one after that.
3 "Keep It Fun"
Mysteriously, when I attempted to translate the words at the end of the ad into English, Google rendered them "Keep it Fun. Love smoking." So professional translators are in no danger of losing their jobs to the robots... yet. The YouTube user who uploaded this entitled it, "Funny Anti-Smoking Commercial," but it's more terrifying than it is funny. That lady seriously needs to relax... in fact smoking could probably do her and anyone who has to deal with her some good. What this ad does is remind people there is a vocal group of positively annoying anti-smokers out there. Which doesn't help the anti-smoking cause.
2 Don't Follow The Crowd
And here it is, folks! The actual argument your parents annoyed the living hell out of you every time they said it made into a commercial: "If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?" Here's the thing about group dynamics in human society: It is not only normal, but actually pretty psychologically health to be aware of how most people you know are behaving and use that to determine how you should behave. In fact, it's often pathological to not care at all what anyone else is doing and just do your own thing. That's people who live under bridges and stuff. Granted, it's also Steve Jobs, but only because a lot of people saw everyone else was getting an iPhone and realized there must be a reason it's so popular. Kids are always going to try to fit in and be very sensitive to what their peers are doing, which is why all these ads are failing if the message they send young people is: "A lot of your peers are trying cigarettes. But you don't want to be like your peers do you?"
1 And Now, Your Moment Of Zen...
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