Spreading the truth

The American Legacy Foundation uses a variety of creative tactics in its quest to reach teens with a message about the dangers of smoking. Marc Longpre reports

The American Legacy Foundation uses a variety of creative tactics in its quest to reach teens with a message about the dangers of smoking.

Sometime this summer, in a number of US cities, a freshly trained advocate for the American Legacy Foundation (ALF) will have a friendly chat with teens about the dangers of tobacco use before rushing off to be interviewed by the local radio station.

The advocate for ALF, likely in his or her early 20s, is at the heart of the organization's refreshed push of its "Truth" campaign. Over three months, two Truth buses - outfitted with a DJ booth, video game consoles, and video monitors - will make their way across the country, each with seven advocates on board who will be responsible for talking with an estimated 750,000 teens, as well as interaction with the media in every market they visit. The goal is to continue to produce effective results through the campaign, despite a dwindling budget.

"One of our primary goals is to continue to reach this very elusive audience," says Julia Cartwright, SVP of communications for ALF. "They're sensation-seeking teens, so our first priority is to reach them in innovative ways. It's a challenge, obviously, but by keeping it fresh and meaningful we feel like we can continue to be effective."

To maximize limited resources, the team is running one campaign - there were up to three in more heady years - and attempting to spread the effort out over the course of the entire year. For 2008, the campaign, "The Sunny Side of Truth," takes the reigns, attempting to use a number of elements, including animation and Broadway music, to reach teens.

The need for "truth"
Few health causes have been taken up with such universal enthusiasm as the anti-smoking push, and a consensus has developed that education is imperative to public health.

Yet teens in this country continue to try cigarettes at an alarming rate. As recently as 2005, the Centers for Disease Control released a survey that stated 23% of high school students had smoked cigarettes in the past 30 days. That same study showed that 3,900 teens begin smoking each day, with 1,500 of them becoming regular smokers.

Enter ALF and its "Truth" campaign. In 1998, major tobacco companies reached the largest civil settlement in American history following a number of suits brought by various states against the tobacco industry for Medicare costs linked with smoking-related diseases. The Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement (MSA), among other things, created ALF.

Launched in February 2000, "Truth" is the largest national youth smoking prevention campaign and the only national effort not directed by the tobacco industry. But that doesn't mean it isn't without challenges. When the effort began eight years ago, its budget bulged to $100 million, more than three times the current figure. The cutbacks have forced the communications team to be more creative and focus on the effective efforts to discourage teens from smoking.

At the heart of the campaign is a tour, set to run alongside the Vans Warped Tour concert series, to be held from June to August. Preparation begins far earlier, though, with the recruitment of advocates in May. Patricia McLaughlin, senior director of communications for ALF, says the organization might receive up to 1,500 applications for only 14 spots.

Once the selection process is complete, the team puts the winners through an extensive media relations training program that prepares them to serve as spokespeople as they make their way around the country.

"Their job is two fold," McLaughlin explains. "They are grassroots marketers, but they also wear the second hat of dealing with the media. Even though a lot of the kids we get are very talented, most have no experience with the media and so we have to prepare them for that."

Cartwright says the goal is to make it as fun as possible for their target audience and to discourage smoking in a relatable manner. Advocates are trained to not push the anti-smoking speech on the teens, and to interact with them in a spirit that fits with the concert atmosphere. The information provided is intended to be distributed while the teens are enjoying the events taking place on the bus, an effective method according to the organization's own research.

The communications effort during the tour centers on local media outreach for each stop, making it an intense summer of pitching to radio stations, magazines, and local newspapers. "Part of the PR strategy is looking at what's going on in those states," McLaughlin says. "Has there been a smoking ban passed there recently? Is one of our crew members from a certain city they're going to?"

What's ahead
When the tour isn't running, ALF and the ad*itive, the agency backing the campaign, will take steps expanding the PR activities.

Patricia O'Callaghan, SVP of PR at the ad*itive, notes that the media outreach will try to reach outlets outside the normal focus of health and youth-oriented publications. With graffiti artists and designers creating T-shirts, hats, and handkerchiefs, the team also plans to pitch design and art magazines.

"It's interesting because we get to interact with a lot of different media," O'Callaghan says. "We feel like that's a really effective way to get the word out, and reach new teens that might not otherwise see our material."

The team also hopes that a notable boost in interactive elements will help reach a generation that uses social networking sites more than any age group. "The Sunny Side of Truth" site has already launched at the truth.com, with games for teens to play and animated features providing facts about tobacco use. The campaign was an early adopter of MySpace and other social networking sites. McLaughlin says the team continues to look for ways to expand the interactive elements.

"We try to make it as fun as possible," she adds. "We try to engage kids in a subtle, fun way, not in a preachy way."

Evolution of the "truth" campaign

Master Settlement Agreement creates American Legacy Foundation

ALF launches "Truth" campaign to discourage teen smoking

"A Look Behind the Orange Curtain" sheds light on the tobacco industry's marketing tactics toward teens

"Seek Truth" uses Q&A format to encourage teens to ask the tobacco industry questions

"Truth" documentary uses filmmaking to capture real people's reactions to the marketing tactics of the industry

ALF launches "The Sunny Side of Truth"

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