Coming Attraction: Anti-Smoking Ads

E! Online, May 31 1997

Coming Attraction: Anti-Smoking Ads

By Elizabeth Johns

Anti-tobacco activists are pushing hard to get anti-smoking ads in movie theaters. It’s an attempt to counteract cool role-models for teens–like Winona Ryder chain-smoking in Reality Bites, John Travolta lighting up in Michael or Julia Roberts inhaling in this summer’s My Best Friend’s Wedding.

“Winona Ryder and John Travolta’s smoking is much more harmful than the Marlboro Man or Joe Camel’s,” says Gregory Connolly, director of the Massachusetts tobacco-control program.

Winona Ryder smoking on Reality BitesSo, Connolly, along with Boston ad agency Houston Herstek Favat, developed a 30-second commercial spoofing the Marlboro Man (icon for teens’ brand of choice) that’s running on 81 movie screens in Massachusetts. The plot: Cowboy lights up, drops cig in crotch. Similar ads are running on local TV. The response? “Great,” says Robin Richardson of Herstek Favat.

The idea is spreading. The Los Angeles County Department of Health is “still in the exploration stage” on its own ad campaign for theaters, says Ingrid Lamirault, director of L.A.’s tobacco-control program. Should the plan be approved, Lamirault hopes to begin convincing theater owners to run the ads mid-June. Edwards Theaters has already expressed interest. Does she think it will fly with other theater chains? “I don’t know,” Lamirault admits. “But there are [other anti-smoking groups] waiting to see if we’ll pick this up.”

Many of them have been inspired by a recent study conducted by Connie Pechmann, a marketing professor at the University of California at Irvine. Pechmann found that teens exposed to anti-smoking ads before watching films were much less likely to think smoking was cool.

But Hollywood may resist. “Trying to get anti-smoking PSAs on theater screens, especially in the summer with all the movie trailers, will be tough,” says Dan Klusmann, publisher of the “Independent Marketing Newsletter.” And studios, such as Warner Bros. and Walt Disney Co., have policies against ads being shown before their movies.

Still, the push is on. “Ideally, we’d like to get to Hollywood,” says Connolly. “Hollywood needs to realize that the competition to sell movie tickets doesn’t just mean teaching kids to smoke and take drugs.. .There’s also something called responsibility.”