The Evolution of the truth Campaign

“You don’t always die from tobacco, sometimes you just lose a lung…”

If you watched TV around 2007, this haunting song from an ad by the truth campaign probably lives somewhere deep down in the back of your brain. To jog your memory, the commercial features a Marlboro Man-esque cowboy singing through a breathing stoma about tobacco related risks other than death (which may seem worse to some).

If you weren’t traumatized already, now you are! You’re welcome.

truth (with a lowercase t) is a tobacco prevention campaign geared towards teens. The organization launched in Florida and has been around since 1999. They’ve gone through several different phases through the history of their campaign, each one using a different tactic to reach and inspire their target audience.

Stage 1: Rebellion

In the earliest stage, truth focused on the rebellious and independent nature of teenagers. The goal of this campaign was to make teens angry due to the deceit being used by Big Tobacco to convince the public that smoking is not as harmful as it really is. Armed with information from formerly secretive documents hidden by tobacco industries (and released to the public in 1998 as part of the Master Settling Agreement), truth encouraged teens to fire back at these lies with facts. The commercial “Body Bags” exemplifies this to a T. Outside a major tobacco corporation building, teens pile body bags from white vans on to the sidewalk outside the building, complete with wailing ambulance sirens. As this happens around him, one boy with a megaphone shouts to the curious executives looking out their windows. Among other things, he tells them that this is what 1200 bodies, the amount of people that die due to smoking each day, actually looks like. The rage and rebellion that these teens exemplify encourage other youth to stand up and fight back. By pushing back against such a large company, it showed teens they can make a difference despite their age.


Stage 2: Scare Tactics

If you are easily grossed out, I would suggest you stay far, far away from truth from 2001-2014. Arguably the most notorious of their ad campaigns, “the ugly truth” had its debut during this time. They used a steady stream of fear-inducing content to scare viewers away from using tobacco products. The advertisement below, “The Unsweetened Truth,” used volunteers who were physically disabled as a result of smoking side effects. Most of them were diagnosed with cancer, and their disabilities include breathing stomas, lower jaw removal, and oxygen tubes. They sing a song naming all the different candy flavors of tobacco you can purchase and ask why tobacco companies “make cancer sweet”…in front of a horrified crowd of pedestrians. Judging by the audience’s reaction, this stage served its purpose very well.


Stage 3: Internet Culture

In the third and most recent phase, truth has turned to the internet. Now, as a youth and frequent internet user, some of the advertisements from this stage are a little bit cringey. For example, “It’s a Trap!” runs on the premise that kids fall into the trap of social smoking by thinking that social smoking doesn’t “count” as real smoking. The concept is great and accurate, but the execution is…lacking. It uses an outdated, cheesy meme from the early 2000s that most young internet users today think is stupid. However, one advertisement during this era was not only extremely entertaining, but very impactful. In a collaboration with Buzzfeed, truth ran “If Advertising Were Honest”. This video tackled how Big Tobacco profiles different minority groups in a recent meme format, “if x were honest,” in which the creator depicts an honest version of anything from landlords to job interviews. Full of hilarious but brutally honest lines like, “Hello prospective LGBT consumer. Due to internet outrage, our brand now supports your lifestyle, and will pretend like we have for years,” this ad hits the nail on the head all while staying in a “millennial-friendly” format.


Personally, I love truth and everything they stand for. Through every stage, they’ve managed to not only correctly target their audience of teens, but have also done so in a fun and creative manner that still isn’t afraid to use facts and openly call out Big Tobacco for their wrongdoing. I sincerely hope that my generation is the one to end smoking.

For more information about truth, visit their site here.

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