State dashes teens' edgy anti-smoking ad campaign
For two years, a panel of teenagers has been helping to run the state's vaunted anti-smoking campaign, wielding considerable influence over its $20 million budget and, thanks to a wry series of slick television ads with a surprising success rate, winning
But the "I Decide" campaign will go up in smoke in a few days, a casualty of the state's budget crunch. The state is using funds from a nationwide tobacco settlement--money that paid for the teens' program--to fill holes in the budget.
The decision means the end of a popular television advertising campaign featuring the exploits of "All Smoke High" and its wheezing, hacking, nicotine-stained students and faculty. Television spots will cease to air after August, and current billboard and bus ads will fade away by spring.
More immediately, the cut means the end of the Rockford-area teen panel that came up with the idea of All Smoke High, and of six others around the state. State officials kicked off the "I Decide" program in smaller counties with less expensive media costs, and planned to move their campaign into Cook County in the coming year.
The pilot programs turned out to be not only a crash course in health and advocacy, but also a rare opportunity for teenagers to be the creative force--rather than just the target audience--of mass marketing.
"We wanted to make sure it wasn't some adult-run organization, just using teens as a cover to make it look bona fide," said Eldridge Gilbert, 18, a Rockford teenager active in the pilot program. "We were strong with our convictions, and really held our ground about the commercials we wanted to make."
Big ideas, big budget
The idea was born in the Illinois Department of Public Health, not long after officials learned about the windfall the state would receive as a result of the settlement of the states' lawsuit against the tobacco industry. With a portion of the proceeds dedicated to preventing teenagers from taking up the habit, the agency decided to get teenagers to help out.
To start with, they turned to high school administrators and community leaders in Rockford to assemble a group made up of class officers and club leaders as well as kids from the smoking courts and alternative schools.
"We thought, `They know how to reach their friends,'" said Tom Schafer, the agency communications chief who led the program. "We didn't intend to turn over the checkbook, but we did want them to participate."
But the teen panel took charge right away, at a fall 2000 brainstorming session at a local Italian restaurant, where 20 high school students started batting around ideas. Sitting around a banquet room after dinner, they tried to figure out exactly who they were trying to reach and came to the conclusion that just about everyone they knew either smoked regularly or had tried it.
What if they skipped the preachy sermons and health warnings, they wondered, and just made fun of the social norm? Before long, they were talking about something called All Smoke High.
The teens loved ASH. The adults did not.
"I thought it was kind of risky," Schafer said. "What about a `dying' message? I thought, `Don't kids care about dying?' This certainly wasn't my favorite."
But he agreed to let a Chicago advertising agency work with the idea, along with a few others, and then to bring back some other suggestions for scripts and videos. He hoped the panel would choose the other proposals, but they, along with the focus groups, were fired up for ASH.
So the state agency gave the go-ahead for the campaign, which cost almost $4 million in its first year and $15 million in the second. They spared no expense on production, believing the anti-smoking ads would need to be just as slick as the competing spots for Pepsi and The Gap.
The ads lampoon the school's cigarette culture with scenes set in its smoke-filled halls and classrooms. Its cast of characters includes ashen-faced students, a teacher with a cigarette propped perpetually between her fingers and a principal who speaks through a mechanized voice box thanks to his laryngectomy.
On Career Day, one student raises his hand to ask a firefighter whether that smoke he fights is a "smooth, rich" one, and a teacher introducing a professional Chicago Fire soccer player urges students to remember that "He's an athlete, not a role model."
In one provocative spot about a romance between two students--some people at Public Health Department really didn't like it--a camera shot from the rear of their car on a moonlit night shows it rocking steadily. A pan across the automobile reveals it is shaking because the romantic pair in the front seat is wracked by terrible coughing fits.
"We knew it would appeal to the masses," said Gilbert, now a freshman at Brown University. "We knew it was going to grab teens."
The results surprised the experts at the state agency. The ad campaign and other "I Decide" activities were designed to prevent teen smoking, not to make current smokers quit. But in the first year of the campaign, Public Health Department research suggests, that's exactly what it did. One study by the agency showed an 11 percent decline in teen smoking in Winnebago County.
Then the awards started rolling in. "I Decide" swept the awards at the National Public Health Information Coalition, and won other awards in advertising and public relations competitions around the country.
Students who had seen their idea go from roundtable discussion to an ad spot during the nightly showing of "Friends" felt a sense of accomplishment.
Program's end angers teens
When news of the funding cut began making its way through the grapevine, some responded with tears. Others were angry.
"Here are so many teens trying to make a difference, and now it gets stripped away from us," said Carly Caminiti, 16, a Springfield junior who serves on the Sangamon County teen panel. "It's just not fair to us."
Outrageous to some critics is the fact that the state has used the proceeds of the tobacco settlement for things other than smoking prevention, including a $280 million tax rebate right before the last election.
Illinois, like many other states now struggling with financial difficulties, is diverting the vast majority of its settlement money away from tobacco-related programs, which will get about 5 percent of the money in the fiscal year that begins July 1. Last year it got about 16 percent.
Much of the remainder, this year as last, goes to health-care programs that help buy pharmaceuticals for senior citizens and poor people, although some fills budget holes that aren't related to health programs. None will go to "I Decide."
Public health officials worry that this division of the tobacco money will come back to haunt them. Currently, only six states are using the tobacco money to fund smoking-control programs at the level recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Illinois isn't one of them.
"If we continue to see the tobacco settlement dollars as just easy money, one day we're going to wake up and say, `What did we do?'" said Janet Williams, director of tobacco prevention and control for the Cook County Public Health Department.
Some of the teenagers refuse to give up. Caminiti started trying to drum up private funding.
"It won't just die," she said. "There are too many teenagers who care about it."