State of the Brand :: by Jason Voiovich

A weekly discussion of how branding affects the world around you.

The smoking rebel returns

Posted on | March 14, 2011 | No Comments

Jason Voiovich

Key Points:
1. Smoking rates among teens have fallen dramatically since the late 1980s, but have hit a plateau at just under 1 in 5.
2. There are certainly many reasons for this, and we could be at a natural barrier, but less aggressive anti-smoking advertising is likely partly to blame.
3. Also to blame is a resurgence in pop culture smoking references – everything from pop music to the latest animated kid-flick “Rango.”

When I was a kid, people smoked on screen.

Yes, television advertising was off the air since Virginia Slims last spot on Carson’s “Tonight Show” in 1971, but throughout the 1970s and 1980s smoking remained a mainstay of popular movies.

In the 1990s, that started to change, especially with movies aimed at children.

Anti-smoking groups began targeting Hollywood in the same way tobacco conglomerates did decades before. If they could make smoking cool by featuring it on the big screen, perhaps they could make it disappear (especially for younger moviegoers) by eliminating it.

If you remember, this was the era of tobacco legislation, court cases, and record payouts by tobacco companies to states Attorneys General to recoup the direct and indirect costs to public health. Taken together with aggressive anti-smoking advertising, the rate of young smokers lighting up for the first time has dropped from 36.4% in 1997 to 19.5% in 2010 according to the CDC.

But a funny thing happened on the way to “zero”. The rate of current cigarette use among teens has leveled off.

If “everyone knows” the dangers of smoking – especially starting young – what gives?

A few things. As a parent of a teen (and with another entering that age bracket), it’s becoming clear that whatever I don’t approve of, they want to try. It’s a sign of rebellion, and a way to forge their own identity. Beyond that, much of the money that was supposed to be used for tobacco cessation advertising was gobbled up in state government budget crunch solutions a few years back – Minnesota included. As a student of the advertising craft, I know how well it can work. I also know what the lack of advertising means. And let’s not forget the classic American urge to not be told what to do, even if that thing is ridiculously stupid (the second leading cause of preventable death, behind only obesity, qualifies as ridiculously stupid in my book). We’ll defend our freedom to the death to run headlong into a tree if that’s what we choose.

But I think there’s something a little more than that. Smoking is definitely making a pop culture comeback, and it was on full display during a weekend showing of Johnny Depp’s new kid-thriller “Rango”. Animated characters smoked on screen. It blew me away. I haven’t seen that since the old-time classic Disney’s flicks (most recently “101 Dalmatians”).

Anti-smoking and parent groups are calling foul. They cite a 2007 mandate from the Motion Picture Association of American that any movie that featured too much smoking be slapped with an R rating. They say Rango should get it. And I agree.

Paramount’s execs say that the characters smoking are the “bad guys” and that their behavior is so poor that kids would associate smoking with undesirable traits. And besides, they’re animals, not people.


We already know that smoking fits the classic rebel archetype. It was always the “bad guys” who were smoking, and that’s what made it so appealing. For a certain percentage of all kids (and a bigger percentage of teens), the anti-hero is precisely who they identify with. Layer on a dose of a smoking Lady Gaga or Charlie Sheen and its a pretty potent persuasive cocktail. And all that without advertising and promotion of equal strength on the other side.

Listen, I’m not here to advocate that moviemakers can’t show someone (or some animal) lighting up in their film. That’s their choice. But if you’re showing it to kids – who are actively forming their impressions of the world around them – parents need to know before they go in. That’s our choice. An R rating helps make the decision.

Related Links:
WebMD: Decline in Teen Smoking Rate Levels Off


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Jason Voiovich
director_corporate marketing, Logic PD
Black Belt
Caffeine Addict

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