Since the early 1970s, the law has prohibited tobacco products from being advertised on television in the United States. The tobacco companies didn't fight this, since they knew if they went to Congress, there was a good chance they'd lose their print ads as well.
This all changed as the result of a class-action lawsuit against Philip Morris, which now calls itself Altria. As part of their settlement, the tobacco companies agreed to fund anti-smoking public service announcements.
So now they get to advertise on TV.
Sit down and watch one of these commercials. Now, think back about what you've learned. The classic adage of advertising is, "There is no such thing as bad press," so talking about smoking on television — even in a pejorative context — helps their cause. It's about as close to a Xanatos Gambit as anyone has ever come in modern advertising: Whether the viewer smokes after watching it, they still watched it and they're still talking about it.
Beyond that, the anti-smoking PSAs produced by tobacco companies are always a little backhanded. The textual message — don't smoke — is coupled with a very different subtext. Studies have actually backed this up, linking exposure to "anti"-smoking PSAs to higher cigarette use.
The exception that proves the rule was the original series of truth ads by the American Legacy Foundation, starting in 2000, which focused less on the health risks and more about talking about evil the tobacco companies are, a stark anti-corporate message that found resonance with millennials. The original run was so effective that a cigarette company sued saying they unnecessarily vilified tobacco companies. Later iterations of the campaign were watered down enough to return it their original stealth level.
Ironically, liquor companies have never benefited from any similar trope, since anti-drinking commercials are nowhere near as common and rarely call for the abuser to cease indulging his habit altogether. In fact, they've been more than willing to make commercials of their own calling for their customers to drink "responsibly" (i.e. in moderation) and have a designated driver to get them home safely if they've had too much. That advertising alcohol itself isn't illegal (other than depicting consumption of it on-screen) explains it.
A deliberate Broken Aesop that may play on Our Product Sucks and is probably one of the most extreme versions of The Man Is Sticking It to the Man. (He's been ordered by the court to stick it to himself.) Could also be considered a case of Loophole Abuse.
It also makes an excellent example of Unishment: Before being ordered to make anti-smoking commercials, they were prevented from advertising on TV entirely.
An invoked instance of Do Not Do This Cool Thing. See also Smoking Is Cool. Compare Random Smoking Scene, where characters light up In-Universe in a way that looks suspiciously like Product Placement.
- PSA motto: "Tobacco is wacko -- if you're a teen."
Subtext: "Smoking separates the adults from the mere teenagers."
- In Germany, the motto was "Cool kids can wait". Same subtext as above, plus "you'll start smoking anyway when you're grown up".
- R.J. Reynolds funds the "Right Decisions, Right Now" campaign, which implies that, while smoking is a bad decision now, it might be okay later.
- Benson & Hedges pulled its funding for the Symphony of Fire and the Toronto International Film Festival in 2000 when new advertising regulations came into effect. The subtext was that they were only funding them to get their logo displayed, not to support culture.
- A PSA by Philip Morris: "There is no safe cigarette. Go to our Web site and read more about the health risks of smoking."
Subtext: "Hey, look what good corporate citizens we are! And go to our Web site!"
- Outside TV, note the "If you're thinking about quitting smoking..." brochures sometimes attached to cigarette packages. Inside is information on the health benefits of quitting — information that might reinforce your decision to quit. Of course, as long as the pack is already open...
- There's one in the Netherlands, Canada and the United Kingdom which shows an attractive woman smoking, and then says "Lose the Smoke, Keep the Fire". The problem is she still looks sexy smoking, and kind of dorky afterwards. This is a rather indirect version, however, since it's coming from Nicotinell Gum, which doesn't make any money if smokers keep on smoking, but does make money from maintaining a steady consumer base of smokers in need of its product to help them quit. Here it is.
- Philip Morris has released a brochure urging parents to discuss all tobacco products with their kids: not just normal cigarettes, but also cigars, pipes, smokeless tobacco, Indian cigarettes, and clove cigarettes. At least four of these other product types are types Philip Morris does not make. Not to mention that the explicit message is "tell your kids that the tobacco products Philip Morris doesn't make are just as unhealthy as ones it does".
- This French anti-smoking print ad's message was basically "Teen smoking is like whoring yourself out to a person of authority." There were numerous problems with it: apart from the fact that if you listen to another authority, in this case the campaign, you're not really your own person either, it was such a sheer exaggeration that it was dismissed by adults as shocking and by teens as preposterous; also, a substantial number of them replied that, even if it looks bad, they might like to blow some guy, even some Corrupt Corporate Executive in a suit.
- Also, one French TV commercial showed some evil company's Big Bads being assembled to find a way to eliminate tons of toxic wastes, and ending up creating the idea of cigarettes ("People are ready to pay to swallow this crap"); while it is an intriguing idea for a story, the acting was so bad that it looked like a parody, and gave points to the Smokers Are Cooler team instead.
- MUSE ADVERTISING and Benir Koranache used cinema and a pithy "Hit-man" trope to deliver this message to urban (USA) teens, where cigarette distributors are portrayed as psychopathic mercenaries... and totally badass. The spot would later be archived on Ad Age's Creativity site and received a Emmy nomination for its viral use. Here
- Seen on slot machines in Canadian bars: "Before you lose everything, call:" with the number for a gambling addiction hotline.
Subtext: Keep gambling until you've lost nearly everything. Or cognitive dissonance: I'm not calling them (perhaps because I'm in a busy bar) which proves that I'm not concerned about losing everything just yet.
- The Truth started airing ads for "Shards of Glass Freeze Pops" and "Shards of Glass Mini-Chewables". Presumably, the implication is that cigarettes are as dangerous as these imaginary products, which would never be let onto the market, but the ads are just way too confusing to get the point across.
- An older Truth ad spot featured a handful of teenagers going behind the school to, "Have a pick" (referring to picking their noses). The end narration was, "Isn't smoking just as disgusting?" The audience was obviously meant to roll their eyes, thinking "Hell no!" The subtext was, "Don't be like these gross nose-pickers, smoke instead!"
- One Truth campaign is based off of Tinder, with it being shown that smokers are considered unattractive enough to automatically pass up, despite all other qualities presented. The main segment of the commercial has a physically unattractive man (disheveled, scraggly, overweight, etc.) sitting in front of a massive pile of horrid looking food. He proceeds to look at a young woman's dating profile, focus only on her appearance, then discard her profile because she "smokes like an old man at a race track". The text seems to be "it doesn't matter how much you care for your own body, because no one will ever love you if you smoke." The subtext seems to be "It shouldn't matter what you look like; even if you smoke, the people who truly matter will be able to look past it."
- This piece of stealth marketing from the firm (starring Harley Mortenstein from Epic Meal Time) involves dank cat videos. The subliminal message is that you can kill annoying internet trends simply by smoking.
- Another Truth campaign emphasizes the dangers of vaping and discusses how much more dangerous it is than smoking regular cigarettes. It's not hard to conclude that you might as well smoke cigarettes.
- Another series of Truth PSAs involve two or more people briefly (and rather quietly) mentioning some evil facet of the tobacco company, sometimes followed by the tobacco company's justification for it, followed by an elaborate song and dance about how they must have been mistaken. At the end of the song, they very quickly realize that their justification makes no sense. The part of the commercial that inevitably stays with you is the big song and dance that tobacco companies were in the right. Note also that the last bit happens so quickly at the very end that it's often cut off by local stations trying to return to the show on time.
- During the Cold War, several Eastern European resistance groups had a workaround during the 1960s to avoid government censorship. Instead of releasing the propaganda directly, they distributed newspapers with detailed articles about all the treasonous publications their fine leaders had recently put down, refuted, or nipped in the bud. Of course, this took the form of, "Let us examine, very closely and in exquisite detail, all those lies that those sordid imperialist publications are writing. To better refute them, of course."
- Prohibition. During the 1920's, when alcohol was outlawed in the United States, some wineries would sell grape juice in wine bottles, and if you peeled off the label it had instructions on the back that basically said "don't follow these instructions or this grape juice will turn into wine".
- According to some historians, the makers of Vine-Glo (a grape juice concentrate sold during Prohibition) sent demonstrators out to stores to show how easy it was to convert the block into refreshing and legal grape juice. Those demonstrators also showed exactly what you should not do, lest your grape juice "accidentally" turn into wine.
- Alcohol example: Heineken's "When you drive, never drink" campaign employed notable race car drivers where they are depicted to be refusing even just a bottle as they still had to drive home after a hard-fought race. Not that it won't generate publicity and sales for the company though.
- During the 1980s, Seventeen magazine had a full-page ad sponsored by a tobacco company explaining that smoking was a grown-up decision, and not one to be made until you were old enough and mature enough to understand what you were doing. In the meantime, enjoy just being a kid!
- Betting shops in Britain's high streets display posters in their windows that promote responsible gambling with the slogan "When the fun stops, stop". The word "fun" is heavily emphasised.
- When British tobacco companies were forced to accompany full-page print advertising with a government health warning in prominent script at the bottom of the page, it was amazing how the lurid warning that "smoking can stop you getting pregnant" only appeared on adverts in magazines aimed at men. Whereas the one warning that "smoking can damage your sexual potency" only seemed to be attached to adverts in magazines aimed at women.
- The Nothing Happens anti-marijuana PSA, emphasized how "Nothing can happen to you" on marijuana, such as missing out on life and living as a sponge off your parents. It became a well-known example of an ad that increased teen use of cannabis by showing it as "healthy experimentation, interesting to try, fun, and normal"", and the supposed irony of the tagline going over most people's heads.
- Thank You for Smoking:
- The tobacco lobby produced an "anti teen smoking ad" that basically consisted of a boy talking to his father about how he can't wait to turn 18 so he can smoke just like his dear old dad.
- Also in the movie were print ads that said, "Everything your parents told you about smoking is right." The ad's maker pointed out that, in addition to being extremely softball, the last words of the ad are "smoking is right."
- Moreover, as surely must have occurred to the advertisers, who knows what the parents may have told their kids? Sure, it might have been, "These things are killing me, kid. Don't make the same mistakes I did," but on the other hand it may have been, "Why should I give up smoking? Your great-grandfather smoked three packs of unfiltered Lucky Strikes a day all his life and he lived to be 98 years old."
- There was extensive discussion of the insertion of a smoking scene into a major motion picture, just so people would associate smoking with post-coital astronauts blowing rings while floating sensually around one another.
- In a meta-example, the movie never actually shows anyone smoking. In a deleted scene, Nick Nailer asks for a smoke after he's kidnapped by the anti-smoking radicals, and immediately blacks out from the nicotine. Another deleted scene shows Nick's son reaching for a cigarette during a press conference - and the photographers get some great shots of Nick slapping it out of his hand.
- Parodied in a Billy T. James skit from the 1980s, when Billy and his colleague, in the style of a Play School arts-and-crafts segment, go through the steps in making a roll-your-own cigarette... only for Billy to put the finished product on top of his head and call it a hat.
- Parodied on the install screen of Metal Gear Solid 4. We see a video of Snake gruffly chaining cigarette after cigarette, occasionally playing with the smoke a little, while text comes up on screen talking about how cigarettes damage your health and the health of others around you, and how you should never start.
- Whenever you contact the CODEC support in earlier games while smoking, they'll give you a list of reasons why he should quit (Naomi's lung cancer speech from the first one comes to mind), and Snake retorts along the lines of "yeah, but smoking feels nice". In Metal Gear Solid 2, Snake's reason for not quitting smoking is the far less appealing "I'm going to die young anyway, so why bother?", but Raiden is apparently an ex-smoker, and when his girlfriend begs him not to take up smoking again because of how hard it was to quit, he says the best way of avoiding that is to carry on smoking. Even in gameplay terms, the cigarettes sap your health and the item menu is plastered with health warnings, but help you get through lasers, restore psyche, let you see in the dark, and make Snake look really cool.
- Bungie Software parodied this in some of their magazine advertisements in The '90s, saying "Unlike tobacco companies, we're more than happy to tell you how addictive our products are."
- Invoked in Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal with this superhero telling kids smoking is bad -while looking 'awesome' smoking.
- The Onion parodied this trope with this, a campaign that simply claims "It's Gay to Smoke." Aside from the offensive language that'd probably make gay people or allies smoke out of spite, the ads are so sensual that it's not hard to imagine someone watching them for Sex Sells reasons. (Ironically, they're shown as successfully turning young teens off the idea, as teens fear being called gay more than cancer.)
- In The Simpsons episode "Lisa the Beauty Queen", Laramie Cigarettes sponsor the Little Miss Springfield Pageant.
Father: Wow, president of Laramie Cigarettes, Jack Larson!
Larson: This year, Laramie is sponsoring the Little Miss Springfield Pageant. You see, government regulations prohibit us from advertising on TV. [takes a puff on a cigarette and holds up the box] Ah, that sweet Carolina smoke! But, they can't prohibit us from holding a beauty pageant for little girls aged 7 to 9.Girl: [as pageant winner] What a feeling! I'm as happy as a smoker taking that first puff in the morning!
- South Park:
- The "Butt Out" episode starts with the boys watching a stage improv group at their school who are trying to deliver an anti-smoking message. Their performance is so annoying that when they announce "But if you don't smoke, you could be just like us!" the kids run out behind the school immediately afterward and start chain-smoking cigarettes as if their lives depend on it.
- Family Guy: "Are you smoking yet?"
- In The Critic episode "A Song For Margo," Jay's make-up lady Doris mentions she was in a commercial for Pleghm Fatale Cigarettes in the 1950s.
Doris: (singing) Smoke in the bathroom, smoke after school, don't listen to your parents, 'cause smoking's really cool.
- A Beany and Cecil cartoon had Cecil and his antagonist stopping for an impromptu commercial for "Herrings...the only smokes gefiltered to my distaste!"
- On Clone High, the Raisin Council invokes this trope by having Johnny Hardcore (Jack Black as an Ink-Suit Actor) tell kids NOT to smoke raisins, or else they will become raisin-addicted cool rock stars like himself. Then they provide The Pusher to sell them raisins. The logical conclusion, of course, is a What Do You Mean, It Wasn't Made on Drugs? anvilicious parody of Drugs Are Bad episodes.
- These kinds of ads were mocked in a series of PSAs by the California Department Of Health Services, where an animated crocodile (representing the tobacco industry) touts his new "community service" efforts—with the intentional side effect of getting his brand name out there again.
- John Waters filmed a pre-movie spot for an art house theater where he tells the patrons that there is no smoking allowed in the theater... while smoking a cigarette and asking the audience if they wished they had one. Then he tells them to smoke anyway, since it gives the ushers something to do.
- A Capitol Steps sketch has a "smokesman" from Philip Morris report that his company, in the wake of the tobacco settlement, has decided to lead the effort to teach kids about the hazards of smoking by way of a fun new collectible card game called "Smokemon," in which a "three-pack-a-day hardcore nicotine freak such as Smoke-at-you" can be evolved from a mere casual smoker. He then adds, "I'll tell you, kids: don't smoke cigarettes, okay - unless you want to look really, really cool!"
- Viva Variety Cigarettes! "Smoking's bad. We're bad."