The new Truth anti-smoking ad has taken a new approach to curbing teen smoking. It represents a move from the grotesque ads of removing skin and teeth to talking about the salary differences between smokers and non-smokers. I find the ad interesting, but it illustrates two problems all to common with many brands today.
Research does not always tell the whole truth
The ad claims that young smokers could earn up to $10,000 less than non-smokers. It backs up that claim by citing the Usual Weekly Earnings of Wage and Salary Workers Bureau for the second quarter of 2016 report by the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. The problem is that particular report says nothing about smokers vs non-smokers. The question of whether or not a respondent smokes isn’t even asked as part of that report. In fact, the words “smoke” or “smoking” are mentioned zero times in the report.
This ad also has a screen shot of an article written in 2013 by two economists from the Federal Reserve of Atlanta who found smokers earn 20% less than non-smokers. However, that finding is a correlation not causation because it does not factor differences between age, race, or socio-economic status. Its like saying people who drive to work tend to have a glass of water before they go to bed.
If Truth wanted to cite real research, it should have cited a recent study by the Stanford University School of Medicine that shows that people who smoke have a harder time getting a job and, yes, they actually do earn less. But the mean age in this study was 48.
I don’t feel like what thetruth.com is citing here matches up with the facts they are citing, even if I personally suspect there is something to this idea. This, unfortunately, is the problem with a lot of research claims. Companies tend to make some pretty big decisions based on what they consider research.
We see brands do it all the time. They ask people about what characteristics they prefer in products or services, and then ask how the brand stacks up in those characteristics versus the competition. They take that data and immediately set forth an action plan to improve their areas of deficiency relative to the competition. Based on that, those brands expect people to switch.
The problem isn’t the research but the interpretation. The best thing a company can usually hope for is being equal to its competition in those values. Companies often cite research that they are not up to snuff compared to the competition on those values, so they work to improve them. That is fine, but those values then become table stakes. They are not what are most important.
This is not to say that all research is misleading or using research to substantiate a claim is bad. Brands just need to be very careful of what they are citing and how they are interpreting it.
The Truth anti-smoking ad is also completely meaningless because it isn’t an accurate reflection of the target audiences – kids and young adults.
There are a number of sources that show the vast majority of smokers start before they turn 18. The ad is completely ineffective in getting them to not smoke. The argument that the ad presents is far to rational for them. Kids have been trained since birth to believe they can do and accomplish anything. They base their relationships with others on how many likes their social media posts receive. Few kids in high school are thinking about how much they are going to earn relative to their peers.
Kids at this age are earning minimum wage. When they graduate, if they don’t go to college or trade school, they will likely start at minimum wage. These kids see those around them as earning the same as they do. The non-smoker will not start at $5 more per hour than their smoking counterparts.
Smoking is irrational
The choice to start or quit smoking for kids is certainly not about money. The fear of losing money because of smoking is a rational fear. Smoking in and of itself is not a rational act to begin with. So how do you convince them to quit with a rational argument? You can’t.
The decision to smoke is highly emotional. In today’s world, I don’t think there is anyone who would actually agree that smoking was a good idea. The days of doctors promoting the health benefits of smoking are thankfully long gone.
Today, everything is about instant gratification, especially for this target audience. Human beings by their very nature are irrational and smoking is irrational. Getting kids to quit smoking or avoid it altogether requires a gut punch, an immediate and shockingly painful jolt that completely knocks the air out of you. The message has to be so arresting that it stops kids in their tracks and becomes an insidious voice in their heads every time they are tempted to have a cigarette. It’s not a rational message. It’s an emotional one that actually is reflective of them and affects them instantly.
Telling kids to stop smoking because of something that may or may not happen in the future is spitting in the wind.