The Genius Behind Those Amazing Super Bowl Ads May Be Targeting Your Kids To Use Tobacco

Vital Strategies
Jan 31 · 3 min read

By Steve Hamill, Vice President, Policy, Advocacy and Communication

Every day for two weeks my son has asked me “Dad, who will win, 49ers or Chiefs?” Secretly I already know. I’m a communication and health professional, so I know the real winner is advertising.

Sure, between ads we will catch a bit of football and a halftime show, but the real stars are the glamorous, 30-second stories that capture our hearts, that can make us laugh or cry. There’s no time when Americans are more attuned to the world-changing power of creativity.

But while our eyes are glued to the TV, our kids may be seeing something completely different on their tablets and social feeds: Big Tobacco. Banned from advertising on TV, Big Tobacco will spend more than $8 billion this year to reach their favorite targets in the U.S.: youth, communities of color and poor people.

Just getting in ads in front of kids is not enough, though. It takes special genius to make their smelly, disgusting and deadly product seem cool, sexy and worth trying, so Big Tobacco turns to the world of Mad Men: top ad and public relations agencies.

And with smoking in a decades-long decline and their corporate reputations in tatters, this dinosaur industry has a new cynical public relations ploy: using vaping to refurbish their image. In their desperation to recruit great advertising talent, the makers of Marlboro even went so far as to push their way onto the “social good” track at the Cannes Lions International Festival alongside socially conscious organizations like UNICEF and Sesame Street. They are claiming that people’s health is suddenly central to their corporate mission, all the while the vaping epidemic has snared more than 5 million kids whose addictions will fill their coffers — and coffins — for decades to come. And they continue to spend billions on marketing conventional cigarettes, insidiously in the U.S. through digital media and kids eye level marketing in stores, and brazenly in countries with weak advertising regulations.

The good news is that their efforts are starting to fall apart. Savvy consumers — and worried parents — are increasingly expecting corporations and brands to match their own values. A campaign called Quit Big Tobacco has brought together 300 nonprofits, brands and agencies to stand for a future where no one ever is targeted by a tobacco ad. Agencies are pledging not to sell their valuable creative talent to Big Tobacco and heavy-hitting corporations like CVS Health have also joined, saying they won’t work with ad agencies who create tobacco ads. Together they’ve created a great business incentive for ad agencies to do the right thing: more than $500 million dollars, or what it costs to air 100 Super Bowl ads, worth of business for creatives who refuse to promote tobacco products — including vaping.

Equally as important, we’re seeing this coalition join parents, health professionals and organizations in raising the alarm on Big Tobacco’s effort to use vaping to worm its way back into the heart of regulators and tastemakers at a time when we desperately need sensible government action to protect kids from all tobacco products, including vaping.

So this Sunday, as you are wrist-deep in snacks and admiring the latest and greatest in advertising (and football), take a moment to think beyond the ad to the values of the agency creatives that concocted it. Do they stand up for your values beyond the screen? When they are done promoting cars or tech gadgets during the Super Bowl, do they use their talent and expertise to promote addiction to your children?

A primary driver of our health, and our children’s health, is our everyday environment, and that includes the advertising that shapes our vision of ourselves and the future. It’s the big brands and their agencies that shape the advertising environment. As a society, and within our families and communities — online, on TV and in person — we have the power to hold brands and their advertising agencies to a higher standard. Will we? Our kids’ lives are at stake.

Vital Strategies

Vital Strategies is a global public health accelerator, working to address the most challenging health issues to improve the quality of life for people around the world.

Vital Strategies

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We envision a world where every person is protected by a strong public health system.

Vital Strategies

Vital Strategies is a global public health accelerator, working to address the most challenging health issues to improve the quality of life for people around the world.

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