Still from the original ad, via the CDC Tobacco Free Facebook page.
I’m not generally a fan of PSAs. The language tends to be heavy-handed and preachy, and often the concepts seem entirely detached from the reality of the intended audience. “Just Say No” is the obvious one here, but the phenomenon is widespread — even the most clever, memorable ads seem better at being clever and memorable than at making the viewer actually want to stop littering, stay off drugs, or whatever.
So I was pleasantly surprised yesterday when I stumbled across what I think is a very effective 30 second TV spot. It started with predictable imagery (X-rays, surgery, etc.) but ended with a tagline that I’ve been pondering ever since: “Every cigarette makes you sick.”
To begin with, it’s specific. There are lots of forms of tobacco out there, and they’re all bad for you to some degree. Likewise, smoking tobacco does a lot more than just make you sick; it forms addiction, and eventually kills you. But this statement wisely lets go of the broad, all-encompassing warning, and chooses vividness over scope. If you smoke, it’s easier to dismiss a warning about “tobacco products” than one about the exact items that sit, tantalizingly, 20 to a box in your shirt pocket.
Even more important, “every cigarette makes you sick” focuses on the here and now: if every cigarette makes you sick, then this one will, implying that you can do something to avoid sickness today, rather than contemplate the more dire long-term consequences. The human tendency to value immediate effects over long-term ones is well documented, which is why satisfying a craving in the next five minutes can often feel more pressing than avoiding death in the distant future.
Perhaps you’ll disagree, but these five words seem more likely to actually make someone not smoke a cigarette than anything I’ve seen.
As a writer who occasionally comes up with taglines, I couldn’t help but imagine what this statement could have been, if it’d been subject to a few rounds of “rational” editorial review:
The copywriter bursts into the meeting with a Post-It note in his hand. “I think I’ve got really good one here,” he exclaims to the rest of the project team. “It takes on the problem of immediacy we keep talking about, and it’s got some great sticking power. Here, what do you think of this?” He slaps the Post-It up on the wall, and reads it aloud.
“Every…cigarette…makes you sick.” He pronounces the words carefully, with extra emphasis on the first two, then a tiny pause, and a matter-of-fact resolution, trying with all his heart to sound like the no-bullshit MD who’s finally leveling with you about your habits.
“Yeah, that’s pretty good,” answers one colleague, “But…hmmm…I mean, we need to make sure we’re not limiting ourselves to just cigarettes. I mean, what if someone’s a cigar smoker? Couldn’t they just kind of opt themselves out of it?”
“I like it too,” chimes in another. “But tobacco products”–and here she glances meaningfully at the first colleague–“aren’t just, like, the common cold. I feel this would have a lot more impact if we were clear about their full effect. You know, talking about how they shorten your life, they create secondhand smoke, they cause cancer. Cancer is a pretty scary concept. I think you need to find a way to incorporate that into the statement.”
“We need to make sure we’re not being discouraging, you know,” suggests a third. “I mean, there’s been a lot of research showing that smoking has a cumulative effect, and that you can actually undo a lot of the damage by quitting. We don’t want people to read this and throw up their hands and say ‘it’s too late now, I might as well just keep smoking.’ Can you make the tagline reflect that?”
“But…” the copywriter starts, then pauses, and exhales a tiny puff of exasperation. “It’s powerful this way! People will pay attention to it!”
“Look, it’s really close. We all really like it,” replies the first colleague. “But I think it needs just a little bit more work. You’re a great writer, I’m sure there’s a way you can incorporate our feedback and keep it sharp and punchy. That’s what we pay you for!”
“Um….uh-huh,” the copywriter manages to meekly reply.
END RESULT: “Using too many tobacco products eventually contributes to sickness, cancer and death.”
Done and done.
If you’re interested, the original video (which, other than the tagline, is pretty standard PSA fare) is viewable at the CDC Tobacco Free Facebook page.