Truth– “It’s a Trap” and the #FinishIT campaign
Truth® is sponsored by The Truth Initiative (formerly the American Legacy Foundation), an organization devoted to abolishing smoking in the U.S. According to The Truth Initiative’s website, they are “America’s largest non-profit public health organization dedicated to making tobacco use a thing of the past.” The Truth Initiative was established in 1999 as a result of The Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement (MSA), an accord reached between the state Attorneys General of forty-six states, five U.S. territories, the District of Columbia and the five largest tobacco companies in America concerning the advertising, marketing and promotion of tobacco products.
Truth® (referred to from this point on as The Truth Campaign) launched in 2000 with television ads that challenged big tobacco companies and shocked viewers. Their objective was to shift the focus from the personal dangers that smoking poses to the greed and corruption of big tobacco corporations. In their first video, they gathered thousands of people outside of Phillip Morris headquarters, then had them collapse to represent the number of lives lost each day to smoking. The videos they released following this took a similar tone and carried the same message, which criminalized these huge cigarette companies.
In August of 2014, The Truth Initiative revamped their efforts into a new campaign, called #FinishIt, urging teens to become the generation to abolish smoking altogether. The latest #FinishIt campaign employed the full-service, international ad agency 72andSunny which, according to their website, has also worked with big-name brands such as Activision, adidas, Axe, Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s, Carlsberg, ESPN, Google, Samsung, Smirnoff, Sonos, Starbucks, Target, and Tillamook. The agency has a very edgy appeal to it, with many of their clients being technology and/or pop culture-fueled companies.
Aside from the broad objective of “abolishing smoking,” The Truth Campaign took a more specific route in its recent rebranding. In an article by the Wall Street Journal published earlier this year, Eric Asche, chief marketing officer of the Truth Initiative, explained that their new target will be both intermittent smokers and users of hookah and flavored cigarillos. “We have started to see success around driving down cigarette use, but our fear is that it’s a transference of the behavior to other products,” he says in the article.
Their target demographic is also blaringly clear. Their cover photo on multiple social media sites looks like a snapshot from a spring break party.
Furthermore, their collaboration with Vans shoes and famous Vine stars, their sponsored posts on Buzzfeed, and their youthful social persona (particularly on Twitter, using trending hashtags and popular teen slang; see below) all make it extremely obvious that they are targeting teens and Millennials on social media. Their website even states this explicitly, explaining their campaign as, “a national tobacco prevention counter-marketing campaign that speaks to youth and young adults on their terms, through the channels they understand and trust.”
Their main goal seems to be exposure and, in turn, message internalization by their target demographic. They create engaging content akin to that of a Vine or viral YouTube video that just begs to be shared. They use almost every social media channel (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+, Vine, YouTube), but the one that is updated the most frequently and that is the most active in social interaction is their Twitter page (will discuss more thoroughly in “Conclusions”). Their Facebook page has the most followers (over 2 million), but it is essentially dead in terms of activity. On their website, they push users the most towards Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, as most of their banners pushing for “Follows” are for these sites.
Like stated above, The Truth Campaign has been running since 2000, but my focus is on the 2014 rebranding of the campaign, which is geared more toward youth and with more specific objectives. According to The Truth Initiative’s website, in 2013 the marketing and communications leader Robin Koval became the new CEO and president of the organization, and oversaw “a major reinvestment in the Truth Campaign.” Under her direction, The Truth Campaign found a new light in #FinishIt (the current blanket term for the modern Truth Campaign) which began in 2014. The chief creative officer of 72andSunny, Glenn Cole, explains their new take on tobacco in an article for The New York Times, “An insight we built this campaign around is that this up-and-coming generation is just craving to be agents of social change and their biggest frustration is that they just don’t know how to do it.” The new ads are meant to inspire the 91% of non-smoking teens to influence their smoking peers to quit as well.
The revved-up version of the campaign premiered at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards with a short video called “Unpaid Tobacco Spokesperson” alongside another video called “The Finishers.” The former showed dozens of pictures of smoking celebrities with the caption “Unpaid Tobacco Spokesperson.” The fun is that many of the celebrities shown were actually in the audience when it aired and got to watch themselves.
“The Finishers” was basically an announcement of their new #FinishIt campaign, which highlighted the success of the 2000 campaign but reminded viewers that Truth’s goal is still to abolish smoking. At the end of the video, viewers are urged to visit their website so they can join the cause. The website was, and is still, loaded with ways for teens to spread Truth’s message and engage with the brand. “X Your Profile” lets users upload a picture for Truth to overlay an orange “X” on in the hopes that they will use the X’d out picture on their social media sites. Also featured on their site is an “Erase and Replace,” in which users are able to take pictures of them (or their peers) with cigarettes, and replace them with silly cartoon objects, like a kazoo or a taco. According to Truth’s website, 51,327 people “X’d out” their profile while 4,825 people “erased and replaced” their cigarettes.
Following their VMA premiere, both of these videos went out on social media, using the hashtag #FinishIt (“The Finishers” currently has 884,263 views on YouTube and while I wasn’t able to obtain a definitive number of Tweets using #FinishIt, the number is definitely in the ten thousands).
The #FinishIt campaign continued with the ads in February 2015, and premiered “Left Swipe Dat” at the 2015 Grammy Awards. The ad was based on a statistic from an Action on Smoking and Health study that proved non-smokers get twice as many Tinder matches than smokers do. “Left Swipe Dat” is an explosion of American pop culture, starring Becky G and Fifth Harmony (musical performers) and a mix of popular YouTube and Vine stars all singing about “left-swiping” (i.e. rejecting) potential Tinder matches because of cigarettes in their pictures. The song in the video is absolutely ridiculous and borderline-annoying, but it is catchy and funny, so it became one of the #FinishIt campaign’s most popular videos, with over 3 million views on YouTube, over 33,000 likes, 11,000 shares, and 628,000 views on Facebook, and multiple covers uploaded by YouTube stars and various performers. In a recent USA Today article, the Truth Initiative’s social media manager Cas Marburger praises the video, “The celebs and icons in the music video — like Becky G, Fifth Harmony, King Bach and the intergalactic dolphins — have been absolute champions,” Marburger says. “Their participation and support of truth has sparked a firestorm of people talking about why they choose not to smoke, chose to quit smoking or why they’re down to help #LeftSwipeDat.”
Beyond the original “Left Swipe Dat,” #FinishIt and 72andSunny later asked viewers to upload clips of themselves lip synching their favorite part of the song for a chance to be featured in a new video featuring cuts of the lip synching. The video was mildly successful, with 168,000 YouTube views (was not shared on Twitter or Facebook).
Keeping with the tradition of awards show premieres, #FinishIt’s next ad premiered at the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards and quickly became the most popular of all of their ads. Titled “It’s a Trap,” the ad explicitly targets hookah and flavored tobacco users as well as “social” or occasional smokers. Similar to the “Left Swipe Dat” ad, this video relies on pop culture to relay its message, but “It’s a Trap” takes it to the next level. Combining popular internet memes, an array of major social influencers from Vine and YouTube, and a general party vibe, the ad went viral. It has become their most viewed video on YouTube, with over 5 million views, 36,000 likes and 10,000 comments. The shortened version posted to Facebook currently has over 21,000 views, 126 shares and a handful of comments. This ad needed to be chopped up and shortened for Instagram and Vine, but the clips averaged about 1,500 likes and 50-1000 comments on Instagram and about 30,000 loops on Vine (with the exception of the clip featuring Vine star Christian DelGrosso, which had over 5 million loops).
Following the #ItsATrap ad, Truth released four spinoff clips #BigTobaccoBeLike featuring Vine stars Christian DelGrosso, Jerry Purpdrank, Logan Paul, and AlliCattt to challenge popular myths surrounding social smoking. The clips premiered as one on the Fear the Walking Dead finale on October 4th, again on The Walking Dead season premiere on October 11th, then hit social media. These clips were also wildly popular because the stars shared them on their own social media platforms as well, so each one got millions of views on Twitter, Instagram and Vine collectively (especially Vine) because of their already well-established fan base. Any Tweets of the clips from the Vine stars had a high rate of interaction, with Tweets from Christian DelGrosso’s Tweets typically getting over 1,000 likes.
Capitalizing on the popularity even more, Truth is also currently running a social sharing contest via Instagram in which participants must finish the sentence “Saying you only smoke when ___” and tag it #ItsATrap and #Song for a chance to have their post featured in song lyrics by DJ NGHTMRE. This campaign is still running, but there are currently over 86,000 posts using the hashtag #ItsATrap and about 200 comments on the Instagram contest post. The Twitter data for this contest is more spread out, as they have posted multiple times a week about it (original post?), but in a search for Tweets containing both #ItsATrap and #Song, it returned only one page of results (this is likely because the contest is hosted on Instagram, not Twitter). This contest does not appear on their Facebook page.
One of the biggest “competitors” of Truth and its campaign (if there is such a thing for a cause-driven organization) is The Real Cost, the FDA’s first tobacco prevention campaign that launched in 2014. The Real Cost aims to deliver facts about, you guessed it, the real cost of smoking to young adults. Some “costs” they typically mention are monetary, social, and health costs. Their ads are reminiscent of early Truth ads—really packing on the shock factor. One ad shows a girl buying cigarettes in a convenience store, and when she comes up short on cash, literally pulls off the skin of her cheek to pay for them (a similar version of this has a teen pulling his own teeth to pay for menthol cigarettes). Another depicts a cigarette as a greasy, mean loser bullying teens in their daily life, ending with the tagline “Don’t let smoking rule you.”
The Real Cost could better compete with the Truth Campaign by first establishing their own YouTube channel (as of right now, all of their ads are posted by a channel for the US FDA, which doesn’t exactly hook their youthful target market). Also, being that they are on social media, one would think they would want to encourage interaction, but their YouTube comments are disabled for every video. (The dramatic nature of their videos leads me to believe they disabled them due to mostly negative feedback, but there is no evidence to confirm this). The number of views for their YouTube videos lags way behind Truth, with only a few thousand views for each.
In terms of their persona, Truth definitely does a better job at infusing the “teen vibe” into their ads and online personality. The Real Cost comes off as clinical and matter-of-fact, which does not exactly encourage teen interaction or social sharing on their various digital platforms. As Mary Poppins would say, Truth delivers their medicine with a spoonful of sugar while The Real Cost delivers it with a metaphoric black coffee. That being said, they seem to handle negative comments on Facebook a lot better than Truth does, which really boosts their brand authenticity. After a long list of negative comments on one of Truth’s post (criticizing their origins in big tobacco), one user comments “Notice how they don’t respond to negative comments, and only the positive ones?” In contrast, The Real Cost handles one user’s accusation of lies (because she has no health issues from smoking) with a calm tone and facts, right in line with their general persona and government roots.
(Left: The Real Cost, Right: Truth)
The Real Cost has a much smaller social media following than does Truth. They have 41.5 thousand Twitter followers, 12,000 YouTube subscribers, 19,200 Instagram followers and 452,000 Facebook followers compared to Truth’s 121 thousand, 99,000, 37,900, and 2 million followers, respectively. They are not on Vine. The Real Cost is also running a social sharing campaign on Twitter (“#ReasonsNotToSmoke—share yours!”), but contrary to Truth’s, there is no incentive for participation in it.
When looking at the larger, more broad objective of The Truth Initiative and the Truth Campaign in general—abolishing smoking among teens—it is safe to say that they have been mostly successful. According to Truth’s website and #FinishIt ad, they have dropped teen smoking rates in the U.S. from 23% to 9% from 2000 to 2014, which is quite a significant drop (about 1% a year).
Beyond that statistic, Truth obviously wants to be likable by their target market and their heavy use of social media proves that they want to boost social sharing and message internalization by that market. They said it themselves: the third mission statement on The Truth Initiative’s website reads, “To achieve a generation free of tobacco, we empower individuals, coalitions and organizations to take action in their communities. We inspire and train future leaders to help us counter tobacco’s influence…” Furthermore, in an article for The Wall Street Journal, the chief marketing officer of The Truth Initiative, Eric Ashe, confirms that “using the social currency to attack a social problem,” was and is Truth’s main goal in their 2014 rebranding.
While it is obvious that Truth is trying to reach teens where they already live digitally, it is clear that their main effort is on their Twitter presence right now, and it has paid off for them. Twitter selected @TruthOrange’s campaign efforts to be featured on their Twitter for Businesses site as a success story. Twitter praises Truth’s use of Twitter ads to increase their reach in their target market and therefore boost their interactions with that market. On the page, Eric Ashe explains that Twitter is of value to Truth because of the ability it gives them to have mass real-time conversations and personal relationships with their audience, all while clearing up common misconceptions about their cause with facts.
Twitter selects its own key performance indicators for Truth via their paid ads: a 15% peak engagement rate, reach amplified 1.5 times, and an average cost per engagement of $0.05, which is great considering the tree-branch-like effect many of their ads had through retweets and mentions from social influencers online.
Twitter goes on to applaud their social persona, stating, “For all of its Tweets, @TruthOrange cultivates an authentic, pithy voice to draw teens in. The organization created entertaining, fast-paced Promoted Videos that laid out facts and information about smoking with a tone that was edgy, never preachy.” They include screenshots of Truth’s authentic responses to the majority of Tweets that mention their handle or trending hashtags, often including humorous Tweets or popular slang/ hashtags.
While this is all great, it would be helpful to Truth to take advantage of other popular social media sites’ capabilities the way they have taken advantage of Twitter. They have a Vine account, but it only has 9 video clips total and they also aren’t taking advantage of Snapchat, which is gaining increasing popularity among teens in the U.S. These two platforms could take Truth to the next level.
It is also important to remember that Twitter’s praise of Truth’s tone is an ad itself, and there is a wide array of people who don’t appreciate their efforts. One article for AdWeek criticizes “It’s a Trap” for being annoying and potentially driving away their target audience. The article explains that repeating the same message so many times, “not only reaches a point of diminishing returns but actually could alienate viewers who otherwise might respond to it, negating its possible positive effect on current social smokers due to the ad’s overkill.” Indeed, a look at the Facebook comment thread on “It’s a Trap” yields overwhelmingly negative responses to the video, calling it annoying, contrived, transparent propaganda that makes some of them want to smoke again. These results are the opposite of what Truth is hoping for.
If you’re simply looking at exposure, Truth’s rebranding has been wildly successful. Most of their new, pop-culture infused ads have gone viral, and their cross-promotion with various social influencers from Vine, YouTube and the music industry have broadened their audience and brought plenty of extra attention to their social media presence (Twitter in particular). That being said, one look at the comment section in any of their digital platforms shows a largely negative perception of Truth that is typically unaddressed by the organization. Their clever and catchy ads may grab American youths’ attention, but addressing their critics would boost their brand integrity and potentially hold that attention for longer. It will be interesting to see whether or not Truth decides to be more interactive with all of its audience, and how far their rebranding efforts will last. Eric Ashe hints at the future of the Truth Campaign in the Wall Street Journal, stating “We will continue to bring back the shock and awe features of the brand, that’s part of who we are, that’s part of our DNA.”
The shock and awe will certainly help spread their message, but their online persona may need some reworking to truly get American teens to buy into it.
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