Stupid is as stupid does, and it appears none of us are any wiser since the Ontario government launched its stupid.ca campaign to combat smoking last November.
You know the ads, right? Like the tub-and-toast guy who's taking a bath with a toaster on the edge of the tub. Everyone's got a favourite. Mine's the one where a girl in a green poncho jumps on a fresh pile of dog shit, saying that while it's hard to believe people actually want to smell like ordure, almost 90,000 Ontarians try smoking (and thus smell like crap) every year. True? Probably. Funny? Of course. Stupid? Absolutely.
What's harder to believe is that the government can come up with crap like this. And while the effort is honourable (these stupid.ca ads are aimed at 12- to 15-year-olds vulnerable to peer pressure to pick up the stupid stick), smoking's not funny, and neither is a death rate of one out of every two long-term smokers from tobacco-related illnesses.
This campaign could show a little more civility and be more enlightening, say non-smokers' rights advocates, if it exposed the marketing strategies that have allowed Big Tobacco to maintain a viable client base, instead of relying on this stupid.ca shit.
Stupid.ca was launched as part of a wider provincial campaign that includes the recent ban on smoking in public places and higher taxes on cigarettes. And the brain trust behind the $4-million campaign? A panel of 15 youths from across the province who decided that stupid was the way to go if the government was serious about reaching teens.
"It's a bold and provocative statement to make, but that's what appeals to youths today," says Ministry of Health spokesperson Dan Strasbourg. "Our youth felt very strongly that 'stupid' was the best way to describe the act of smoking to 12- to 15-year-olds if we wanted to capture their attention."
To keep with the times, the campaign includes magazine, movie theatre and TV ads and is supported by a website (hence the dot-ca, duh) that boasts a quarter-million hits and counting. Judging by the Internet chatter on the futility of these ads, though, I can't help but think a lot of people may be checking the website to see what the criticism is about.
On the site, you can send e-cards to burn your smoking buddies, and play a wonderful squash-the-fly game where you squish as many of the little critters as you can within a given time period, followed by factoids about what a smoker did during the 30 seconds you were busy playing Squish The Little Critters.
But the Non-Smokers' Rights Association is slamming the effort for ignoring 'best practices' for tobacco control campaigns. "Best practices," according to NSRA executive director Gar Mahood, include addressing the effects of second-hand smoke - like the ad that began running the following year featuring Heather Crowe, a waitress with lung cancer despite never having smoked a cigarette in her life - and exposing what Mahood calls the "predatory practices" of the tobacco industry designed to induce dependence on cigarettes.
More importantly, says Mahood, the campaign has placed the onus on the individual (i.e., kids) instead of the manufacturers.
"Tell kids [the tobacco companies] are responsible for the smokers' behaviour; don't put the burden of smoking on individual behaviour or the vulnerability of little kids. The focus has to be on the industry."
This includes talking about the implicit role of companies like RJR-Macdonald in cigarette smuggling. And how tobacco revenues rise despite falling smoking rates because tobacco companies conceal price increases by scheduling them to coincide with tax hikes.
To be fair, Mahood calls the Stupid.ca campaign a fresh start after the issue was neglected by two consecutive Conservative governments. But his praise ends there as he watches the provincial campaign emulate the federal one he continues to criticize.
"These campaigns are not effective at all. They may score highly in recognition - many people may remember them - but they do nothing to change people's behaviour," Mahood says.
Youth are too smart to take the bait, he says. "Kids understand that adults are talking down to them. [The government says] cigarettes are a threat and that they're dangerous, but [the kids] see cigarettes piled up next to the gum and candy in every corner store in the province. So when these commercials come on TV, kids will say, 'Hold on!'"
So if kids ain't the getting the message, who is? Well everyone else, according to Nancy Daigneault, president of mychoice.ca, a website funded by a $2.5-million grant from the Canadian Tobacco Manufacturers Council. She says that instead of showing that smoking is stupid, stupid.ca gives the message, and not just to kids, that smokers themselves are stupid.
Daigneault says smokers are once again being humiliated by a strategy that would never be used in any other public advocacy campaign.
"I can't imagine the government running ads of this nature against any other group. Can you imagine if we were running ads that targeted obese people?"
Annie Kidder, founder of People for Education, speaking as a parent of a 12- and 17-year-old, says it's a ridiculous comparison. "I don't think it is equatable with any other issue or minority or addiction, because [smoking] just plain kills you."
She adds that the fresh take on it is welcome, considering that traditional anti-smoking messages usually focus on the dangers of smoking.
"All [the ads are] saying is that if you look at reality, isn't it stupid to smoke? I can't believe people are so sensitive that they're saying, 'Oh god, what if we hurt people's feelings?' It is stupid to smoke."
Stephen Clarke of Saatchi & Saatchi, the advertising gurus behind several Mothers Against Drunk Driving commercials, including the one in which an officer is killed while standing next to a parked car, believes that while the stupid.ca campaign is effective, the hard-hitting approach works better. "We got a great deal of recognition for [our] ad because it hit home. Those types of ads will always be more effective than the light-hearted ones."
Clarke says he swore off the idea of ever picking up a cigarette after seeing pictures of a healthy lung and a cancerous one in junior school, and this is exactly the route Heather Crowe is taking.
The waitress of 40 years who became Heath Canada's face in the fight against smoking spends a couple of days a month talking to Ottawa students. She shows the high-schoolers two videos: one of herself as a victim of second-hand smoke, and one of Barb Tarbox, a former model who died of lung cancer in 2003 after 30 years of heavy smoking.
Crowe hasn't seen the stupid.ca ads, but she says a humorous approach can supplement the sobering ads like the one she appears in. "We're trying to get the message across, because we don't know whether [youth] accept it. After all this time, [many kids] still smoke. It takes a lot to get through to them."
According to Ryerson University professor Thomas Barcsay, this reality somewhat redeems the government's approach in going after people who make not-so-smart decisions. Barcsay, who has taught a course on the history of propaganda for almost 15 years, believes a multidimensional appeal will prove most effective."You have to take different approaches. Your audience is so huge and so varied."
But Barcsay worries about a whole new breed of idiocy. "I'm more concerned about stupid people putting toasters beside their bathtubs once they see the ads," he says.