Trump foes could learn from Florida anti-tobacco fight
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Flush with funds from the giant tobacco settlement, Florida officials in the 1990s hired an advertising firm to come up with a message that would discourage tobacco use among the state’s young people.

When the firm researched the effects of other state and national campaigns to reduce smoking, they came to a rather startling conclusion. The sum total of previous public service announcements across the nation not only failed to discourage smoking, the ads may well have made the habit more popular.


They found that the prevailing approach – focused on the dangers of smoking – was doomed to fail because the audience was already well aware of those dangers, and underscoring them only served to highlight the outlaw allure of the product.

It was, it seemed to the Florida team, an epic failure of logic on the part of young people. They had, in effect, developed an immunity to facts and an indifference to danger.

The head of the agency, Jeffrey Hicks, later published a paper in an academic journal describing what his team had found. According to Hicks:

We learned that a youth’s reason for using tobacco had everything to do with emotion and nothing to do with rational decision making. Tobacco was a significant, visible, and readily available way for youth to signal that they were in control….Using tobacco was a tool of rebellion and all about sending a signal to the world that the user made decisions for themselves.

The lesson from Florida is clear. Nobody was going to come up with an effective anti-tobacco strategy unless they were willing to question their most basic assumptions about how people make decisions.

One could say the very same thing about the efforts to stop Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump passes Pence a dangerous buck Overnight Health Care — Presented by American Health Care Association — Trump taps Pence to lead coronavirus response | Trump accuses Pelosi of trying to create panic | CDC confirms case of 'unknown' origin | Schumer wants .5 billion in emergency funds Trump nods at reputation as germaphobe during coronavirus briefing: 'I try to bail out as much as possible' after sneezes MORE.

More than a dozen Republican presidential candidates – and now Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDNC warns campaigns about cybersecurity after attempted scam Biden looks to shore up lead in S.C. Stone judge under pressure over calls for new trial MORE – have dutifully attacked Trump in various degrees as some combination of a hateful, lying, spear-throwing death monger with wildly unrealistic ideas. Reporters, too, have been pulling their hair out trying to understand how the least truthful person in the history of Politifact can march along unscathed by his untruths.

But Trump supporters – just like those Florida youth before them – have developed an immunity to facts and an indifference to danger.

Opponents claim ''Donald Trump says things that are dangerous and untrue.'' Well of course he does, that’s the whole point of Donald Trump. Trump’s selling a miracle cure tonic to people desperate for help. They don’t need facts, they need a miracle. If Trump said things that were largely reasonable and true he’d be a second George Pataki in a political world that doesn’t care to have even one.

What would an effective campaign against Trump look like? Start with Hicks’ analysis. Now, replace the word ‘tobacco’ with the word 'Trump.'

Supporting Trump clearly has everything to do with emotion and nothing to do with rational decision making. For the dispossessed low income white American, Trump is without a doubt a significant, visible, and readily available way to signal they are in control. And there can be no doubt, voting for Trump is about sending a signal to the world from people who feel they have lost something and are now asserting their independent ability to make decisions for themselves.

Based on their research, Florida’s anti-tobacco campaign abandoned any message about the dangers of smoking because the audience found the dangers empowering. Instead, what became known as the ''Truth'' campaign told Floridians that they were being controlled like puppets by big tobacco’s masters of manipulative marketing. In Truth’s analysis, the enemy that mattered to young people wasn’t lung cancer, it was fat cats in a distant office who cared only for personal gain and didn’t give a rip about them.

A successful fight against Donald Trump is not about lies, crazy ideas, wars or hateful rhetoric. Those are Trump’s selling points. The winnable fight portrays a man who doesn’t give a rip about people. It’s focused on a master of manipulative marketing who has spent a lifetime selling a phony image to benefit himself. It’s against a Purell-addicted plutocrat who’s been faking it all along.

The way to stop Trump isn’t to say he’s so unhinged that he wants to build a big wall on the Mexican border. You hurt Trump by pointing out he’d just as soon build a giant Slip and Slide over the border if that would profit him.

Florida’s Truth campaign didn’t focus on the obviously negative aspects of tobacco because the obviously negative aspects were part of the product’s appeal. Instead Truth shifted the focus from the product to the sales pitch and went on to remarkable success in reducing tobacco use. Trump’s opponents must do the same or they’ll wind up touting his faults all the way to the White House.

David Niven, Ph.D., teaches American politics at the University of Cincinnati. He has worked as a speechwriter for Ohio governor Ted Strickland and the presidential campaign of Martin O’Malley.