When anti-tobacco campaign “Truth” released its latest PSA at the Grammy Awards several weeks ago, the unconventional ad triggered a flood of reactions from bloggers and news writers. While many applauded its playful concept and wholesome message, others mocked the outlandish lengths it went to in order to appeal to a young audience. The video, which features a troupe of popular YouTube personalities—including tween pop star Becky G and girl group Fifth Harmony—is a far cry from the somber images of tracheotomies and crumpled lungs that viewers are used to seeing. In fact, the lighthearted ad seems more like a Disney Channel skit than an attempt to address what past PSAs have termed a serious public health threat.
The video opens with two young, conventionally attractive women in a café, flipping through the hook-up app Tinder. The scene is clearly meant to be funny, as the women remark on their odd matches (example: “that dude shaved his chest hair into a heart—he stole mine”). When one of the women sees a man with a cigarette, however, she recoils in disgust, declaring him a definite “left swipe.” The video then rapidly changes pace, as the camera cuts to Becky G ands a Top-40s-style hip-hop beat pumps in the background. What, ten seconds earlier, could have easily been an iPhone ad soon becomes a dynamic rap about the un-sexiness of smoking.
Things get very weird very fast. Up in a green-screen sky, Becky G delivers catchy one-liners, like “I like those six pack abs, not those six packs a day,” while rapper and Vine personality King Bach leads the chorus, urging viewers to “left swipe dat.” At one point, a dolphin swims across the screen on a rainbow. A bearded, lumberjack type disses girls who “smoke like an old man at a race track,” between foot-tall stacks of pancakes. Yet despite the video’s lighthearted tone, the message is clear: smoking is gross, uncool, and unattractive. If you want to be hip and desirable—like the glamorous teen stars on screen—stay away from the crowd that doesn’t get the message.
As I watched the video, I was struck by just how much it was unlike any of the anti-smoking PSAs I’d previously seen on television and the walls of subway stations. Rather than addressing the actual health risks of smoking, the ad’s rhetoric is based entirely on a social stigma, which it eagerly perpetuates. In many ways, this strategy makes sense.
Now that anti-tobacco programs are a staple of high school health classes, most teens with some degree of privilege are well aware of the toll that cigarettes take on smokers’ bodies. Even for those who did not have a formal health class, television campaigns like Truth and Above the Influence routinely broadcast warnings about the costs of smoking on public television. For many young people, then, another “Smoking Kills” ad would simply be redundant.
Perhaps more significantly, however, tweens and teens are far more likely to be concerned about immediately relevant issues like popularity than medical problems forty years down the road. It is precisely this willingness to prioritize social acceptance over health that cigarette companies have historically preyed on, marketing to young people with images of glamorous clubs and packed concert halls. Such ads seem to offer readers a deal. The smoker agrees not to care about his or her health, and, in turn, he or she gets to join the clique of sexy, artistic, adventurous young people depicted on the page of the magazine.
“Left Swipe Dat” appeals to precisely the same teenage desire for coolness that these pro-smoking ads do, but flips tobacco companies’ rhetoric on its head. Rather than a chic in-group of artists, models, and socialites, smokers are rejects, clueless and dateless.
What, then, could be wrong with this PSA? After all, given the severe health consequences of cigarette addiction, doesn’t pro-smoking propaganda deserve to be dismantled? The answer is yes. Yet in its Disney-fied definition of “coolness,” “Left Swipe to Dat” targets the wrong demographic to effect any real change. Popping with bright colors, bizarre characters, and a youthful, sing-along-ready refrain, the video is clearly aimed at a mainstream, tweenybopping, and social-media savvy audience. In contrast, cigarette smoking—at least over the past twenty-five years—has emerged as a means of rejecting mainstream culture. The “coolness” that comes with smoking is not the good-girl glamour that Becky G and Fifth Harmony ooze on YouTube. Instead, cigarettes are “cool” precisely because they have come to stand for a rebellion against the squeaky-clean aesthetic of such conventional ideals.
Ironically, this image of “alternative” coolness is largely the work of the tobacco industry itself. As an increasing number of smoking bans in restaurants and public spaces have made smoking less and less socially acceptable, the tobacco industry has capitalized on this outsider mentality, strategically advertising to groups of individuals cast out of mainstream culture.
The most infamous of these campaigns—titled project SCUM for “subculture urban marketing”—was a series of advertisements launched by Camel cigarettes in the 1990s, aimed at the large gay population in San Francisco. Replacing previous ads’ Hollywood glamour with a countercultural, grunge aesthetic, Camel sought to appeal specifically to an “alternative lifestyle.” The campaign was massively successful: today, LGBT adults are 50-200% more likely to smoke than straight adults, and smoking—at least among young people— remains a powerful symbol of rebellion.
Smoking rates are also disproportionately high in other disadvantaged and minority groups. According to the American Legacy Foundation—the nonprofit behind the “Truth” campaign—about 30% of individuals below the poverty line smoke, as opposed to 20% of those at or above the poverty line. American Indians and Black men are also far more likely to be addicted to cigarettes than whites and other ethnic minorities. Not surprisingly, both have been targeted by major tobacco ad campaigns: while Newport has aggressively marketed to the African American community, several brands, including American Spirits, have capitalized on many Native American tribes’ sacred use of tobacco to sell cigarettes.
Anti-tobacco activists have questioned the ethicality of these ads, which exploit marginalized communities’ sense of “alternative” identity to sell a physically damaging product. Yet the truth is, the SCUM campaign—and others like it—have dramatically changed our ideas about smoking. Just as PSAs have made smoking largely unacceptable in mainstream social circles, strategic campaigns have sold cigarettes to marginalized individuals as a means of rejecting the culture that cast them out.
This history is precisely what makes “Swipe Left to Dat” problematic. Rather than urging young people to “say no to smoking,” as most anti-tobacco PSAs do, the ad tells viewers to say no to smokers—to socially isolate a group of people for a self-destructive habit. Because a disproportionate number of smokers belong to communities that are marginalized, the ad inadvertently asks viewers to look down on a demographic that has already had its fill of exclusion.
The PSA makes no attempt to reach out to any of these groups. From the polished, pseudo-hip-hop beat, to the pop stars it features, to the strictly heterosexual users on Tinder, “Swipe Left to Dat” is clearly aimed at mainstream teens who live on their iPhones, keep up with pop culture, and use words like “hashtag” in everyday conversation.
For these viewers, the ad’s message—smoking equals social rejection—is probably quite effective. Yet, statistically speaking, these teens are unlikely to pick up the habit anyway. Instead, smoking will continue to belong to society’s out-groups—and retain its toxic power as an act of rebellion.