Teens oblivious to Anti-smoking ads
But campaigns may be helping other Canadians to quit

Whenever public officials try to justify the more than $50 million a year the Canadian government spends on advertising, the first ads they point to are those aimed at getting teenagers to stop smoking.

These programs take up a huge portion of the public sector's ad budget, but the results have been decidedly mixed. Between 1989 and 1995, the number of teenagers aged between 15 and 19 who smoke daily, has actually increased slightly from 22 per cent to 23 per cent.

In the United States, the jump has been even more pronounced. Between 1993 and 1997 the number of college students who smoke went up from 22.3 per cent to 28.5 per cent. Few advertising campaigns have generated as poor results as those in the war on teen smoking.

But does that mean that all that ad spending has been a waste of money? Maybe not. It's possible that those anti-smoking ads directed at teenagers have had some effect, just not on them - but on older Canadians.

The number of Canadians of all ages who smoke daily has decreased from 30 per cent of the population to 25 per cent during the same period, and its at least possible, that those ads are partly responsible.

To understand how ads targeting teenagers may be working other sectors of the population, you have to understand that teens are the segment marketers want to convince the most. Advertisers know that if they can get their message across to teenagers, other groups tend to follow.

To begin with, teens' younger brothers and sisters, who tend to look up to them, often willingly adopt any trends that older kids might be taking up. But even more important, in our youth-oriented culture, older Canadians have always keep an eye open to what is happening to teens, especially in fashion, music and lifestyle items.

So what may be happening is that all those ads trying to convince teenagers that smoking is not cool, have contributed to spreading that attitude among adults.

With declining birth rates, fewer Canadian adults than ever actually have teenagers running around their houses. Many Canadian adults are therefor likely to get much of their information about how teens are acting, and what they think is cool, from television.

But you'll never see a teen smoking on TV. In today's politically correct TV-land, none of big networks can get away with depicting teenagers smoking. It's highly unusual to see any character smoking on television, much less a youngster. When it is done, the act of smoking is usually depicted in a negative fashion, or the smoker is a sinister or unsavory personality.

The number of complaints the networks get from the anti-smoking Mafia would quickly force any hit show that had a lead teenager character who smoked, to back off.

It's reasonable to infer that many older Canadians, who as a group average more than 20 hours a week in front of the tube, and meet fewer teenagers in their day to day life, are likely to believe that teenagers don't smoke, and that they view the habit unfavorably.

On the other hand, although the broadcast industry strongly denies it, there is a growing suspicion among marketers that teenagers -- always lessor consumers of television shows than adults -- are even watching less, since the advent of the Net.

So the upshot is that while adults are getting more of their information about teens from television, where teenagers don't smoke, teenagers are getting less information about themselves from that medium.

So who is convincing teenagers to smoke? Probably other teenagers. We've known for quite sometime that for a lot of things, teens prefer to consult their friends before deciding what is cool and what is not.

And with the advent of Net, chat rooms and instant messaging are providing teens far more opportunities than ever before, to talk with each other, which concurrently lessens the pressure other groups may have on them.

Teens - the age group most likely to experiment with cigarettes -- know that cigarettes are not nearly as addictive as much of the media has made them out to be. Only one third of those who try the habit become long-time smokers, and this happens over the course of several years, not instantly.

Teens often take up smoking through the odd cigarette here and there. Stopping for a week when their pack runs out, then starting again when their allowance or paycheck kicks in. The very nature of this stopping and starting that they see going on around them, has made them skeptical about addiction claims.

Characterizing teen smokers as just a bunch of high school dropouts, with low self-esteem and unfavorable family backgrounds, while trying to convince them to drop the habit is also not particularly useful.

It's not that the scare tactics of the anti tobacco lobby haven't worked - they have probably worked too well. A recent study by Harvard University economist K. Kip Viscusi recently asked a group of smokers to guess how many years of their life, their habit would cost them. The average guess was nine years - far more than the real answer of around six or seven.

Getting a better understanding of why teens have been oblivious to the advertising and media machine aligned against their smoking habits, would tell us a lot about marketing, and how it works... or doesn't.

E-mail can be sent to Peter Diekmeyer at peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

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