Truth (anti-tobacco campaign)

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Product typeYouth smoking prevention public education campaign
OwnerTruth Initiative
IntroducedApril 1998; 22 years ago (1998-04)
MarketsUnited States

Truth (stylized as truth) is a national campaign aimed at eliminating teen smoking in the United States. "truth" produces television and digital content to encourage teens to reject tobacco and to unite against the tobacco industry. When "truth" launched its campaign in 1998, the teen smoking rate was 23%. In 2018, tobacco products were used by 7.2% of middle schoolers and 27.1% of high schoolers.[1] In August 2014, "truth" launched "Finish It", a redesigned campaign encouraging youth to be the generation that ends smoking.[2]


Florida Tobacco Pilot Program[edit]

The "truth" campaign was a campaign developed by the Florida Tobacco Program, which ran from 1998 to 2003.

Through their marketing campaign, the program set out to drive a wedge between the tobacco industry's advertising and a youth audience.[3] The program not only assembled a team of advertising and public relations firms, but also collaborated with Floridian youth to develop a campaign that would effectively speak to their generation.[4][3] Youth articulated their frustrations with the manipulative marketing tactics used by the tobacco industry, and described their ideal campaign as one that would give them facts and the truth about tobacco.[4] From this emerged the concept of uniting youth in a movement against tobacco companies promoted through grassroots advocacy and a youth-driven advertising campaign.[3]

In March 1998, student delegates at a meeting sponsored by Florida's Office of Tobacco Control voted to change the theme of the campaign to "truth, a generation united against tobacco."[3] In April 1998, Florida launched a $25 million advertising campaign that included 33 television commercials, seven billboards, eight print ads and four posters.[3] With a target audience of youth aged 12–17, the Florida "truth" campaign modeled their approach after commercial marketing to teens, and used messages that "attacked the [tobacco] industry and portrayed its executives as predatory, profit hungry, and manipulative."[4] The ads re-framed tobacco as an addictive drug promoted by the adult-establishment, and tobacco control as a hip, rebellious, youth-led movement.[3] The grassroots effort of the campaign involved real teenagers taking on the tobacco industry as part of the 13-day "Truth Train" tour across the state.[4] Despite positive results, reduced funding for the program, among other factors, ultimately led to the demise of Florida's "truth" campaign.[4] One of the notable leaders of this campaign was Cleveland Robinson, who not only was the first of 10 student leaders to lead the statewide campaign, but was also a part of the Truth Train leadership team.[5][6]

Truth Initiative "truth" campaign[edit]

As Florida's campaign diminished, Truth Initiative (originally the American Legacy Foundation) adopted Florida's successful strategy and converted "truth" into a national campaign. Generally consistent with Florida's campaign, Truth Initiative's version of "truth" featured messages highlighting the deceptive practices of tobacco companies, and facts about the deadly effects of tobacco.[4]

Campaign strategy and style[edit]

"truth" strives to be a brand youth can identify with. In stark contrast to the heavy "life or death" tone adopted by many anti-tobacco campaigns, the strategy behind "truth" is to emphasize the facts about tobacco products and industry marketing practices, without preaching or talking down to its target audience.[7] The resonating theme underlying "truth" is one of tobacco industry manipulation.[8] With hard-hitting advertisements featuring youths confronting the tobacco industry, "truth" built a brand focused on empowering youth to construct positive, tobacco-free identities. Above all, the campaign avoids making directive statements telling youth not to smoke, and instead encourages them to make up their own minds about smoking and the tobacco industry.[4][9] "truth" channels youths’ rebellious nature and need to assert their independence towards tobacco control efforts.[10]

In addition to exposing industry marketing practices, many of the advertisements produced for "truth" focus on facts about the ingredients in cigarettes and the consequences of smoking, including addiction, disease, and death.[9] A large portion of the facts and information exposed in "truth" advertisements were pulled from real tobacco industry documents that were made publicly accessible following the Master Settlement Agreement. The Truth Tobacco Documents Library, created in 2002 and managed by the University of California San Francisco, houses millions of formerly secret tobacco industry internal corporate documents.

Initial tactics and campaigns[edit]

The "truth" campaign's initial objective was to "change social norms and reduce youth smoking."[11] In building a strategy to accomplish this goal, "truth" campaign designers looked to marketing and social science research, evidence from other successful campaigns, and engaged in conversations with teen audiences. This research revealed that although youth were aware of the deadly nature of cigarettes, they were attracted to smoking as a tool for rebellion and empowerment. The "truth" campaign designers wanted to counter the appeal of cigarettes by encouraging teens to rebel against the duplicity and manipulation exhibited by tobacco companies.[4]

Since the launch of "truth" in 2000, the campaign asserts it has "utilized many different forms of media and evolved its tactics to ensure it reached the teen audience most effectively."[12]

Arguably, the most recognized media produced for "truth" are its television advertisements. For example, the "truth" advertisement "1200" portrays a mass of youth walking up to a major tobacco company building, then suddenly collapsing as if dead while a single youth remains standing with a sign that reads, "Tobacco kills 1,200 people a day. Ever think about taking a day off?"[13] In the "Body Bags" commercial, youths pile body bags on the sidewalk outside of Philip Morris's (now former) headquarters in New York City. One youth steps forward with a megaphone to shout up at the workers in the building, "do you know how many people tobacco kills every day? This is what 1200 people actually looks like."[14] Another "truth" advertisement, "Singing Cowboy", portrays a cowboy who has a breathing stoma (opening) in his neck singing, "you don't always die from tobacco, sometimes you just lose a lung", and other similar lyrics.[15] A third commercial, "1 out of 3", uses "fantasized scenes such as an exploding soda can" to convey the message that tobacco is the only product that prematurely kills one out of three users.[4] Perhaps one of truth's best-known campaigns, "Shards O' Glass", aired during Super Bowl XXXVII. The commercial showed an executive for a popsicle company, "Shards O' Glass", that provided disclaimers for their product – a popsicle with shards of glass in it, clearly unsafe and deadly – and posed the question, "What if all companies advertised like big tobacco?"

Through social media feedback and focus group testing, "truth" designers learned teens respond best to "up-front and powerful messages that display courage and honesty in a forceful way."[12] With that in mind, other edgy "truth" advertisements with various themes were produced between 2000 and 2014, including "Connect truth", "The Sunny Side of truth", "Unsweetened truth", and "Ugly truth."

Prior to the launch of the Food and Drug Administration's "Real Cost" campaign in February 2014, "truth" was the only national youth tobacco prevention campaign not sponsored by the tobacco industry.[9]

Campaign re-launch strategy and examples[edit]

In August 2014, "truth" launched the "Finish It" campaign targeting the next generation of U.S. youth aged 15 to 21.[16] Along with a revamped campaign design, web presence, and series of ads, Finish It embraces a powerful new campaign theme: be the generation that ends smoking for good.[2] In research with its target audience, campaign designers discovered today's teenagers are less interested in protesting against tobacco industry manipulation, and more interested in driving positive collective action. "Finish It" was developed to suit this generation's desire to be agents of social change.[2] The campaign aims to empower the 94 percent of teenage nonsmokers, and the 6 percent of teen smokers, to take an active role in ending the tobacco epidemic.[17]

The first campaign ad released, "Finishers", was shot in the style of a video manifesto and tells youth, "We have the power. We have the creativity. We will be the generation that ends smoking. Finish it."[18] The spot encouraged youth to get involved in the "Finish It" movement by superimposing the campaign logo, an "X" in an orange square, onto their Facebook profile picture. This online activism tactic is similar to that used by the Human Rights Campaign when they asked individuals to change their profile pictures in support of marriage equality.[2]

In another series of "Finish It" ads, "Unpaid Tobacco Spokesperson" and "Unpaid Tobacco Spokesperson Response", the campaign tries to shed light on the way smokers, especially celebrity smokers, give tobacco companies free marketing as "unpaid spokespeople" when their photos are posted.[19][20] As a response, Finish It asked youth to "think before you post a smoking selfie."[19] The campaign also encouraged youth to "erase and replace" cigarettes from photos on social media with various props from the "truth" website.[21]

In 2015, "Left Swipe Dat," a full-length song and music video created as part of the "Finish It" campaign, debuted at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards and connected smoking to dating. The video featured Becky G, Fifth Harmony, King Bach and other influencers. The lyrics revealed that you get half the matches on dating apps if you're smoking in your profile picture. "Left Swipe Dat" encouraged teens to lose the cigarettes so they could avoid being "left swiped", that is, passed over on a dating app.

In another effort to connect smoking to a teen passion point, "CATmageddon" showed teens that smoking is bad for pets and set up the scenario that if there were no cats (due to smoking-related illness and disease) there would be no cat videos and therefore there would be a "CATmageddon", a "world devoid of furry kittens and the adorable, hilarious videos that come with them." The ad launched at the 58th Annual Grammy Awards and featured partnerships with Petco, Adult Swim, and BuzzFeed.

In 2017, the "truth" campaign showed how the tobacco industry has targeted African-Americans, low-income communities, LGBTQ individuals, members of the military as well as those with mental health conditions.[22][23] The campaign encouraged young people to take note of the industry's advertising tactics while educating teens on the tobacco-related health disparities across these demographics. Initial documentary style videos created for this campaign featured comedian and actress Amanda Seales and premiered at the 59th Annual Grammy Awards.[22] Later videos, premiered at the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards and featured journalists Kaj Larsen and Ryan Duffy, as well as rapper Logic.[24]

In 2018, "truth" launched anti-vaping campaign ads showing the dangers of vaping for the first time.[25][26]

Grassroots tours[edit]

In addition to its television advertisements, "truth" maintains an online presence and employs guerrilla "on-the-street" marketing. Grassroots marketing is done via a team of "truth tour riders" who are sent to popular music and sporting events across the country every summer, including Warped Tour, Mayhem Festival and High School Nation.[27]


"truth" also produces a line of custom merchandise every summer that is distributed at events. Each piece of merchandise features a design that corresponds with a fact about smoking. Items are often created in partnership with artists, such as a pair of custom sneakers made in collaboration with Kevin Lyons and Vans shoes. That partnership also spawned a contest called "Custom Culture" where students competed in design challenges relevant to the campaign's merchandise and subject matter.[28]

Evaluation and effectiveness[edit]

Rigorous evaluation studies of "truth" have been published in the peer-reviewed literature since the launch of the campaign in 2000.[9] To evaluate the effectiveness of "truth", Truth Initiative employs an internal Research and Evaluation team.[29] Its efforts include evaluation of televised truth ads as well as digital, gaming and grassroots campaign components. Between 1999 and 2004, Truth Initiative (known at the time as the American Legacy Foundation) conducted a nationally representative Media Tracking Survey of youth aged 12–17 to inform its "truth" campaign evaluation. The Legacy Media Tracking Survey (LMTS) measured tobacco-related attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, exposure to smoking influences including "truth", sensation seeking, and openness to smoking.[9]

Cross-sectional studies on the effectiveness of the "truth" campaign provided convincing evidence that the campaign "had a significant impact on tobacco industry-related attitudes, beliefs, and other behavioral precursors, as well as a significant impact on youth smoking prevalence in the United States."[4] Exposure to "truth" was also associated with a statistically significant reduction in nonsmokers’ intentions to smoke in the future. Another study of "truth" from 2000 to 2004 examined whether campaign awareness and receptivity differed for youth across socioeconomic backgrounds. In 2005, a study published in the American Journal of Public Health conducted by RTI International, Columbia University, and Truth Initiative used a pre/post quasi-experimental design to relate changes in national youth smoking prevalence to exposure to the "truth" campaign over time.[30] The study's statistical analyses showed that smoking rates among youth in the U.S. declined at a faster rate after the launch of the "truth" campaign. A similar study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in 2009 found a direct association between youth exposure to "truth" messaging and a decreased risk of taking up smoking.

A 2009 study examined whether the $324 million investment in the "truth" campaign could be justified by its effect on public health outcomes. Researchers found that the campaign was economically efficient because it saved between $1.9 and $5.4 billion in medical care costs to society between 2000-2002. In this way, the authors argue "truth" is a cost-effective public health intervention.[31]

A study evaluating the "Finish It" campaign indicated lower intentions to smoke in the next year as well as anti-tobacco attitudes with higher ad awareness.[32] Ad recall remained high, even when the campaign aired lower levels of television targeted rating points as compared with earlier "truth" advertising campaigns.

Awards and praise[edit]

The "truth" campaign has been praised by a number of leading federal and state public health officials,[33] as well as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,[34] and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.[35] The campaign has also been recognized for its achievements in marketing with numerous awards in advertising efficacy, such as Emmy,[36][37] Clio Healthcare,[38][39] and Effie awards.[40][41][42] "truth" has also been featured in a variety of academic marketing and communications textbooks to educate the next generation of public health and social marketing leaders.[12]

In 2014, Advertising Age named truth one of the top 10 ad campaigns on the 21st century.[43]

In 2016, the Monitoring the Future study, which surveys national samples of over 45,000 youth in grades 8, 10 and 12, reported historically low levels of current cigarette use amongst youth - only 6 percent of teens still smoke.[44]


A "truth" campaign radio ad called "Dog Walker" prompted Lorillard Tobacco Company to pursue litigation against Truth Initiative (then the American Legacy Foundation). The dispute ran from July 2001 until its resolution in July 2006. In the ad, an actor who identified himself as a dog walker placed a phone call to Lorillard, offering to sell Lorillard the urine from his dogs.[45] The "truth" advertisement states urine and tobacco both contain urea.[45]

Initially, Lorillard accused the ad agency of violating the laws regarding the taping of telephone conversations and threatened to refer them to the criminal authorities. In October 2001, Lorillard filed a Motion for a Declaratory Ruling with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), asking the FCC to rule that the radio stations’ broadcast of the ad violated an FCC regulation regarding broadcasting of telephone conversations.[46] In November 2001, Lorillard notified Truth Initiative of their intent to litigate against the organization and its ad agency for defamation. Lorillard stated that it would not sue if the foundation agreed to a series of demands. Accordingly, Truth Initiative entered into discussions with Lorillard to attempt an out-of-court resolution. However, on January 18, 2002, Lorillard abandoned discussions and advanced a new claim that portions of the "truth" campaign violated the Master Settlement Agreement's prohibition against "vilification" or "personal attacks".[45]

Cases were filed in both Delaware and North Carolina. The matter was resolved by the Delaware Supreme Court on July 17, 2006. They ruled unanimously that the "truth" campaign did not violate the Master Settlement Agreement.[45]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Gentzke, Andrea S. (2019). "Vital Signs: Tobacco Product Use Among Middle and High School Students — United States, 2011–2018". MMWR. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 68. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm6806e1. ISSN 0149-2195. PMC 6375658.
  2. ^ a b c d Newman, Andrew Adam (August 10, 2014). "A Less Defiant Tack in a Campaign to Curb Smoking by Teenagers". The New York Times. Retrieved December 10, 2014.
  3. ^ a b c d e f "Social Marketing Institute - Success Stories - Florida "truth" Campaign". August 25, 1997. Retrieved August 24, 2010.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j National Cancer Institute (June 2008). The Role of the Media in Promoting and Reducing Tobacco Use: Tobacco Control Monograph No. 19. Bethesda, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute.
  5. ^ archer, mike (August 31, 1998). "Teens Message to peers No Smoking". Orlando Sentinel. Retrieved November 15, 2020.
  6. ^ "Teens wrap up 10 day anti tobacco train trip" (archive). Tampa Bay Times. August 11, 1998. Retrieved November 15, 2020.
  7. ^ "National Cancer Institute - Cancer Control and Population Sciences". Retrieved November 16, 2017.
  8. ^ "Ending the Tobacco problem: A Blueprint for the Nation". Institute of Medicine. May 23, 2007. Archived from the original on October 21, 2009. Retrieved November 15, 2017.
  9. ^ a b c d e Allen, Jane; Vallone, Donna; Vargyas, Ellen; Healton, Cheryl (2010). The truth Campaign: Using Countermarketing to Reduce Youth Smoking (PDF). Jones and Bartlett Publishers. pp. 195–215.
  10. ^ Farrelly, M.; Healton, C.; Davis, K.; Messeri, P.; Hersey, J.; Haviland, M. (June 2002). "Getting to the Truth: Evaluating National Tobacco Countermarketing Campaigns". American Journal of Public Health. 92 (6): 901–907. doi:10.2105/ajph.92.6.901. PMC 1447480. PMID 12036775.
  11. ^ [httpd:// "truth Face Sheet"] (PDF). American Legacy Foundation. December 12, 2014. Retrieved November 15, 2017.
  12. ^ a b c American Legacy Foundation (January 2012). "truth Fact Sheet" (PDF). Legacy. Retrieved December 12, 2014.
  13. ^ "1200". YouTube. Retrieved December 17, 2014.
  14. ^ "The Truth - Body Bags Tv Ad". YouTube. Retrieved December 13, 2014.
  15. ^ "ugly truth: Singing Cowboy". YouTube. Retrieved December 13, 2014.
  16. ^ "truth - Finishers". Archived from the original on August 11, 2014. Retrieved November 16, 2015.
  17. ^ Myers, Matthew (August 12, 2014). "Reinvigorated truth® Campaign Will Empower Youth to Finish the Fight against Tobacco". Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Retrieved December 15, 2014.
  18. ^ truthorange. "truth - Finishers". Retrieved December 14, 2014.
  19. ^ a b truthorange. "truth - Unpaid Tobacco Spokesperson Response". Retrieved December 14, 2014.
  20. ^ truthorange. "truth - Unpaid Tobacco Spokesperson". Retrieved December 14, 2014.
  21. ^ truth. "Take Action". Retrieved December 14, 2014.
  22. ^ a b Kulp, Patrick. "A new anti-smoking ad slams Big Tobacco for targeting black neighborhoods". Mashable. Retrieved November 16, 2017.
  23. ^ Wan, William (August 24, 2017). "New ads accuse Big Tobacco of targeting soldiers and people with mental illness". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved August 16, 2017.
  24. ^ Wan, William (August 24, 2017). "New ads accuse Big Tobacco of targeting soldiers and people with mental illness". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved November 16, 2017.
  25. ^ "Safer ≠ Safe". truth. August 16, 2018.
  26. ^ "E-Cigarettes and Teen Smoking". Healthline. Retrieved October 26, 2018.
  27. ^ "Anti-smoking organization launches tour to end teen tobacco use". USA TODAY College. July 22, 2015. Retrieved August 10, 2018.
  28. ^ "Vans Kicks Off the Sixth Annual Custom Culture Art Competition". Vans USA - English. Retrieved November 17, 2017.
  29. ^ American Legacy Foundation. "Examining tobacco use among youth and young adults". Legacy. Retrieved December 13, 2014.
  30. ^ National Cancer Institute. "The Role of the Media in Promoting and Reducing Tobacco Use: Tobacco Control Monograph, No. 19". Retrieved November 17, 2017.
  31. ^ Holtgrave, D.; Wunderink, K.; Vallone, D.; Healton, C. (2009). "Cost-Utility Analysis of the National truth Campaign to Prevent Youth Smoking". American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 36: 385–388. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2009.01.020.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  32. ^ Vallone, Vallone; Cantrell, Cantrell; Bennett, Bennett; Smith, Smith; Rath, Jessica; Xiao, Xiao; Greenberg, Greenberg; Hair, Elizabeth C. (June 2, 2017). "Evidence of the Impact of the truth FinishIt Campaign". Nicotine & Tobacco Research. doi:10.1093/ntr/ntx119. ISSN 1469-994X. PMID 28575421.
  33. ^ Krisberg, Kim (2005). "Anti-Smoking Campaign Lowers Youth Smoking Rates With"Truth" Funding Threatened" (35). Nations Health. Retrieved December 14, 2014.
  34. ^ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (October 2003). Designing and Implementing an Effective Tobacco Counter-Marketing Campaign (PDF). Atlanta, Georgia: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved December 14, 2014.
  35. ^ U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (November 2010). Ending the Tobacco Epidemic: A Tobacco Control Strategic Action Plan for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (PDF). Washington, DC: Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health. Retrieved December 14, 2014.
  36. ^ "The National Television Academy Presents the Public and Community Service Emmy Awards". National Academy of Television. Retrieved November 22, 2017.
  37. ^ "Public & Community Service Awards - 2005 Winners". Television National Academy. Retrieved November 22, 2017.
  38. ^ "Winners 2013, Film". CLIO Healthcare. Archived from the original on November 21, 2013. Retrieved November 22, 2017.
  39. ^ "Winners 2013". CLIO Healthcare. Archived from the original on December 6, 2014. Retrieved November 22, 2017.
  40. ^ "Youth Marketing North America Case Studies". Effie Worldwide. Archived from the original on September 20, 2013.
  41. ^ "Woodworks Effie". Effie Worldwide. Archived from the original on December 18, 2014. Retrieved November 22, 2017.
  42. ^ Griswold, Alice. "'Truth' Shares Grand Effie Award". Retrieved November 22, 2017.
  43. ^ Rodriguez, Ashley. "Top 15 Ad Campaigns of the 21st Century - Advertising Age". Retrieved November 22, 2017.
  44. ^ Monitoring the Future website. "Monitoring the Future National Survey Results on Drug Use 1975-2016" (PDF). Retrieved November 11, 2017.
  45. ^ a b c d "Legacy Litigation | The American Legacy Foundation". Archived from the original on October 12, 2007. Retrieved August 24, 2010.
  46. ^ "Mass Media Bureau Action Comment Sought On Motion For Declaratory Ruling" (Press release). Federal Communications Commission. November 5, 2001. Retrieved August 24, 2010.

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