Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Put this in your pipe and smoke it.

         The other morning I had coffee at the Starbucks across from the University of California Berkeley campus. At the next table four policemen were talking about smoking. One said he believed cigars were better to smoke than cigarettes. The others weren't so sure. My work with the U.S.Department of Health & Human Services made me sure all smoking is bad.

         The DHHS Office on Smoking and Health in Washington, D.C., was a wonderful client. The head, Bob Hutchison, was very astute psychologically. For one thing, he only wanted smokers on the account. In his experience, non-smokers were always too preachy, shaking invisible fingers at the viewer. It didn't work.

         For another thing, the DHHS knew the job was formidable. Smoking isn't rational. People who smoke aren't rational about it. So the advertising couldn't simply be rational. The whole task was the answer to a creative person's prayers.

         Bob Hutchison and his people filled us in thoroughly. We spent a good deal of time with the people studying smoking and addiction at the Maryland State Hospital. We learned about the parallels between tobacco smoking and heroin, the rituals and the withdrawal symptoms. When we were convinced, we returned to our smoke-filled conference rooms in Chicago to create the commercials.

          The first pool of commercials was directed to teen-age boys. We engaged Brooke Shields to talk to them. Then teen-age girls. We used peer pressure. Then middle-age men. The story of smoking and the heart.

          The second pool was even more challenging. We wanted to feature the Surgeon General of the United States, a pediatric cardiologist named C. Everett Koop. We thought smokers should get to know this dedicated, learned man, and get some tips from him.

           When we went over the commercial ideas in his office, he asked if he should wear his Surgeon General's Marine uniform. We said no, we wanted him to been seen as "America's family doctor". Please just bring three of your favorite suits to the studio in Chicago. But when he came out of the dressing room, he was wearing his uniform, with the brush epaulettes on the shoulder. It took the wardrobe mistress to talk him out of it, and the rest of the day went quite well.

          By the end of the year, the commercials were having terrific results, and all of us working on the account had given up smoking. The DHHS had to find another smoking agency to work with!

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