A public health agency in Finland is using an interesting approach to shock teens into not smoking

The Tobacco Body website features an interactive image of a man and a woman. Users zoom in and out of their body parts to observe the effects smoking has on a male and female body.

This is a new campaign by the Cancer Society of Finland, whose objective, according to the website of their ad agency, is to use this as a tool to show teenagers “to think critically about smoking.” The idea is to move beyond the black lungs, gooey tar and damaged livers, and use technology to “make the shock effect more shocking.”

And pretty shocking it is. Before-lady and Before-man are indeed much better-looking than After-lady and the After-man.

The strategy employed is clear: teens today don’t care about lungs, livers and cancer, or if they do, the constant exposure to such warnings has rendered them ineffective. What they do care about is appearances. So let’s show them how ugly smoking makes them.

On one hand you can’t argue with facts: smoking does give you spots, increase your testosterone levels, give you bad breath and unhealthy hair, yellow your teeth and nails, etc. Fact-wise there’s not much to dispute in the Tobacco Body website. But how advisable is it to resort to telling teenagers what is beautiful/popular/acceptable and what is not, even if it is towards the noble cause of telling them to not smoke?

Sample these snippets taken from the website:

[Man & Woman] “Dear Smoker, we’re sorry to inform you that according to nail fashion experts, nicotine yellow is not this season’s colour.”

[Woman] “Hey non-smoking girl, you are on a wonder-diet and you don’t even know it! Your body shape is closer to the average, whereas research shows that smokers weigh more and are rounder around the abdominal area.”

[Woman] “The non-smoking woman is less-likely to have as much hair growing on her arms as a smoker.”

[Woman] “The non-smoking woman usually has no additional hairs growing under her nose... No need for a five-bladed special razor.”

[Man & Woman] “Smokers have bad breath. As many as 20 per cent of people have ended relationships because of smoking. In Burn Magazine’s interviews several celebrities reveal they prefer kissing non-smokers.”

[Man & Woman] “A weary face is not a popular one: out of the 100 most popular profile pictures in a dating service only 2 were pictures of smokers.”

Basically, the Cancer Society of Finland is telling youngsters that smoking makes you hairy, fat, yellow-toothed and gives you bad breath. I found it slightly bothersome how features that are quite normal in several healthy teenagers, like rounded abdomens and hair on arms (for women), was being grouped with those which are blatantly undesirable and unhealthy, like yellowing teeth, bad breath and damaged lungs.

I wondered if this ad could be sending negative body image messages to kids who are naturally fat or hairy – are they implying that these kids are not as desirable?

But the more I thought about it the harder I realised it was to completely buy into that line of reasoning. Because, as a friend pointed out, this may be a case where the end could perhaps justify the means.

It was different in the case of the Dove ‘You’re more beautiful than you think you are’ campaign which also used a similar strategy to sell their product. They too inadvertently (?) went about setting definitions for beauty. The glaring difference of course was that Dove, at the end of the day, was trying to sell us soap under the guise of the noble motive of wanting women to feel good about themselves.

In the case of Tobacco Body, there’s no such deception. As questionable as their strategy might be, we can probably be sure that all this campaign wants is for teenagers to say no to smoking. They are, after all, the Cancer Society of Finland.

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