Court-ruled anti-smoking TV ads, won't be effective on millennials and generation Z

Court-ruled anti-smoking TV ads, won't be effective on millennials and generation Z
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Every year smoking kills  480,000 people in the United States. That statement and others like it, which present unfiltered facts about smoking, will appear over the next five months in TV and print advertisements from tobacco companies throughout the nation. You read that right. Tobacco companies will soon be running ads detailing the harmful, often deadly, effects of their products and the lies and techniques they used to manipulate people into using them.

To be clear, the new ads (which begin airing on Nov. 26) are not voluntary. They are not a sudden burst of altruism, guilty conscience or even a reverse marketing ploy by Philip Morris USA, et. al.

Rather they are the result of a 1999 federal government lawsuit against the tobacco companies. In 2006, a judge found the companies guilty of civil racketeering laws for lying to the American public for decades about the health effects of smoking and their marketing to children.


The judge in the case dropped all demands by the government — including financial demands — in lieu of one requirement. She ordered the tobacco companies to run an ad campaign with messages known as “corrective statements” to correct the lies Big Tobacco has told all these years. Ads will run five times a week on one or more of the three major TV networks for a year and once a month in 45 major newspapers around the country for five months.

You might think that’s good news. Finally, tobacco companies have to come clean! However, somewhere deep-pocketed tobacco executives are smiling. For despite the court’s finding, tobacco companies are still allowed to be in business and spend billions of dollars to market their products in stores and elsewhere in communities to addict more people.

In addition, the ‘punishment’ of running the truth-telling ads and, more importantly, where they will be seen, will miss a large portion of tobacco’s most valuable and coveted target demographic: children and young adults. And for Big Tobacco, that is reason to smile.

That’s because the Surgeon General’s Report from 2014 revealed that the younger a person is when they begin to smoke, the more likely they are to become addicted to nicotine. “Nearly nine out of 10 adult smokers started before the age of 18 and nearly all started by age 26,” the report says. To cut off the future impact of cigarettes, it is essential to prevent young people from ever starting.

Of course, Philip Morris and company know this all too well and have set their sights accordingly. That is why, in a very real way, the ruling misses the mark when it comes to warning young people. It is not speaking to the audience where it gathers and Big Tobacco is licking its chops like the big bad wolf at the door.

When one considers the court’s ruling of setting a punishment of ‘truthful advertising’ in newspapers and on television, we can see how deficient it is when it comes to reaching the coveted market of pre-teens, teens and young adults. Newspaper readership is on the decline for all ages and is especially true when it comes to adults 18-24.

A Pew Research Center study on daily newspaper readership found a steady and precipitous decline across all age demographics, but in the 18-24 group, the numbers fell from a high readership of 42 percent in 1999 to a mere 16 percent in 2015. What real effect can anti-smoking newspaper advertising have on a population that, to a large degree, doesn’t read newspapers?

Similarly, numbers for television viewing among this market also show significant change. Last year, the chief executive of a multi-channel network told an audience at a television industry conference: “Traditional TV viewing for teens and tweens is dead. Not dying; dead.” While he may have overstated the case, it was not by much.

A Defy Media survey, published in Variety Magazine, found that viewing habits among the adolescent/young adult market continue to change rapidly. YouTube, for example, is the must-have video service for those aged 13-24, (67 percent) as opposed to 36 percent who cited pay TV. And it (YouTube) remains the most-viewed video platform among the Millennial demographic (85 percent of respondents said they regularly watch the Google-owned video service). Netflix came in at 66 percent, followed by 62 percent for TV.

Most of those surveyed said they could “live without cable or satellite television,” with a familiar refrain being “the stuff on television isn’t relative to me.” In light of the judge’s ruling, that had to be music to Big Tobacco’s ears.

That’s because when it comes to righting the wrongs of Big Tobacco’s message through an ad campaign, the ‘punishment’ was a big miss on the judge’s part when one considers Millennial viewing habits. After all, how can the message be received by those who need it most, if it isn’t appearing where they are most likely view it?

The truth is, had the forthcoming ads been ordered to appear where Millennials and Generation Z are consuming their content (YouTube and similar outlets), they had a good chance of reaching the intended audience and quite possibly resonating with them. A recent Nielsen survey revealed Millennials understand the necessity of ads (79 percent) and many say ads don’t bother them (46 percent), especially if the content they’re viewing is free (75 percent).

Unfortunately such is not the case. Those outlets most popular among young people were not included in the ruling. And so, while the impact of the judge’s decision won’t be known for quite some time, what is clear is that the anti-smoking message will likely not be heard by a great many of those who need to hear it most. That is more than an unfortunate outcome. It is a decision that will have life and death consequences.

Patricia Folan, RN, is the director of the Center for Tobacco Control at Northwell Health.