Cancer Council WA has launched an anti-smoking campaign, called “how you’re seen”, that emphasises the marginalisation of smokers, showing people smoking outside alone, in the rain and other grey conditions.
In the article below, a nurse blogger, Rick Turner, argues the case for campaigns to specifically focus on young peoples’ cultural norms around smoking.
He suggests that a campaign showing young people “how they are seen” by big tobacco companies, rather than by their peers or family, may be the greatest weapon we have in preventing teens from starting smoking.
We need a campaign that speaks to young people
Rick Turner writes
An interesting article in The Age caught my eye last month.
Entitled “What do we think of smoking now?”, the article posed the problem of how to counteract decades of art, movies, advertising and popular culture that have all implicitly or explicitly promoted the idea of smoking as being “cool”.
As we all know everybody from Madonna to cowboys to fashionistas and movie stars have all promoted smoking (whether they like it or not); and public health campaigns are unfortunately far from being the epitome of the most rebellious kind of media.
“I can’t help wondering,” ponders health reporter Amy Corderoy, “how that cool-factor can be overcome. As much fun as public health people are …, how can a PhD or an advocacy body overcome years of art, culture and ideas?”
This got me thinking. You see I have a 15 year old who is cool and also dabbling with cigarettes.
Given all the public funds that have been thrown at cessation campaigns in this country; all the interventions, such as bans on smoking in clubs, pubs and workplaces; and perhaps the highest tobacco tax in the western world; why is it that my son is still tempted to smoke?
Lord knows, his mother is a doctor and his father is a nurse; you would think that we of all people, would somehow have got the message across that smoking is not such a good idea!
Even the marketing director of British American Tobacco Australia, has described Australia as one of “the darkest markets in the world ” – an allusion to how successful our anti-smoking campaigns have been.
So is it that the message is simply not getting through to young people? Or is it somehow not formulated quite appropriately for teens?
Take for example the National Tobacco Campaign of 1997-2000 (NTC). It was the anti-smoking campaign through which my son grew up, but vestiges of it still remain today.
Just last week, my son and I watched a re-run of one of its major screen commercials at the movies. “Every cigarette is doing you damage” says the ominous voice, as a cigarette burns its way through bubble wrap: a simple reference to the damaging effects of cigarette smoke on the alveoli of the lungs.
Now for someone like me, who is interested in cultural studies, the importance of such campaigns is that they acknowledge the role of social media in the desirability of smoking as a cultural past time.
They understand that smoking connotes something, that it has meaning, and that to encourage people to quit, or not take up the habit means effectively changing this meaning.
Yes, you must give people strategies to quit, supply advice and emotional support, but at some point you are also going to have to treat fire with fire and force consumers to (re)view their habit in different ways.
For the NTC the key points guiding the creative strategy for the campaign’s communication were (and I quote):
- show the health damage from smoking in new insightful ways that were both enlightening and chilling,
- develop a conditioned association between the images of harm to the body and the act of smoking,
- translate the scientific knowledge about smoking into ‘felt’ experience, rather than a cognitive appreciation of risk, and
- describe the certain consequences of smoking to diminish self-exemption.
The problem is, however, not all consumers are created equal, and what works for one segment of the tobacco market might not work for another.
Might a campaign that proves “enlightening” and “chilling” only fuel risk-taking behaviour amongst young people? Does not a campaign that prioritises ‘felt experience” over “scientific knowledge” only encourage a group of people who clearly already value the former (as “lived experience”), and reject the later as another form of authority to which to disavow?
To be fair, the NTC was a cessation campaign primarily aimed at 18–40 year old smokers and was not necessarily designed for the teen market.
But there was, however, also “a desire and intention that this adult focus and broad exposure of the campaign advertising would be effective in reducing the appeal of smoking to children and adolescents”, which does suggest that the policy makers were hoping that young people were at least listening. (Indeed two cross sectional surveys were subsequently carried out at a national and state (Victorian) level to see how young people responded to the campaign).
What I am trying to suggest is that even if was not aimed at them, the NTC still fed (and continues to feed) young people with an implicit message that smoking was cool and rebellious, precisely because it is unhealthy, dirty, risky and socially no longer acceptable.
We can do better. We need to shift the parameters and move away from this very limited view of public health advertising.
We need a campaign that speaks to young people and clearly articulates that young people are getting ripped off or exploited, by large multinational corporations.
Our message to young people (be it movies, television, facebook or advertising) should have a little to do with health per se, and more to do with power.
For if there is one thing that is NOT cool to young people, is knowing that they are the pawns in the game of a higher or larger power.
• Rick Turner is a haematology nurse working in one of Melbourne’s leading tertiary hospitals. A keen follower of cultural studies, he has an enormous interest in the politics of representation and how they intersect with health, health care and nursing.
This post first appeared at his blog, Reflections of a Critical Care Nurse