Giving Away Truth: On the Road With the Outbreak Tour

WireTap Interview with Susie Santilena, 18, of the Los Angeles truth team.

WireTap: What made you want to do this?

Susie: Probably the fact that a lot of people I know were smoking. First I was against smoking, I thought it was a really nasty habit, but as I got more involved with truth I realized that it's not just smoking. It goes beyond smoking, it goes beyond the smokers themselves and it goes down to the tobacco industry and what they're trying to do. If you know the things I know about them. Terrible basically. You'd probably want to get involved too.

WireTap: Why do you think they chose you?

Susie: Probably chose me because, I'm really down for the cause. I interact well with people and also, I'm one of those main marketers who's really … I basically live truth … truth is like a way of life to me.

WireTap: What kind of feedback do you get from your friends about it?

Susie: My friends are all cool with it. Like, even if they smoke themselves … They all know that I'm working for a good cause. My family and stuff is really proud of me, because they know that I'm out actually saving lives by spreading the information about truth and about what the tobacco industry is doing.

WireTap: So, is anyone ever critical?

Susie: Well you know, sometimes, when I'm out there spreading truth, a smoker will be critical of us because they don't know that we're actually not Anti-Smoker. We're just anti-Tobacco Industry (because they're the only company that gets away with selling a product that kills a third of their customers.) So, once we get the message across that truth is actually anti-tobacco industry, not anti-smoker and smoking's not an issue, then usually that kind of … all of that criticism kind of goes away.


If you tell people not to do something, there's a good chance they'll do it anyway. Sometimes, they'll do it precisely because you told them not to.

That principle is well understood by the people behind truth, an advertising and publicity campaign bent on exposing the manipulations and secrets of the Tobacco industry. truth isn't exactly an anti-smoking campaign. Its slick packaging and branding doesn't tell you to "Just Say No." But it does use money generated from an unprecedented victory against the Tobacco industry to present startling statistics and facts. What you do with those statistics is your business, the campaign implies -- just don't say no one ever told you.

Well-meaning social marketers have tried to explain the negative health effects of tobacco to teens for years, partly with the intention of keeping them from picking up the habit. But none have done it with the success of truth's counter-marketing plan, which was launched in 1998. And while reducing a habit that kills thousands of people every year becomes more urgent, the way the campaign hopes to accomplish this raises some important questions.

The campaign's first round of ads were subtle, and looked more like they were introducing a new band or an underground art project than a health message. They showed youth posing together with straight faces holding signs that looked hand lettered. They were posted all over urban areas and in teen magazines, and suggested that they were telling their audience a secret. "Ssshh," they said. "Don't tell anyone, but the cool kids don't smoke."

This year's truth ads are far more in your face. One recent ad showed a group of angry young adults throwing black body bags onto horses (Think dead Marlboro Man stolen from a morgue, riding off into the sunset.) and another had the same posse of kids piling body bags outside Phillip Morris Headquarters.

Their colorful material are filled with facts and accusations. "The product [the tobacco industry] sells kills more people than AIDS, murder, suicide, fires, alcohol and illegal drugs combined," one says. "Look at your watch," reads another. "In the next hour, the Tobacco Industry will spend nearly 1 million on advertising." But the truth is not stopping at print and television ads. Last summer, they added a real live team of young people to their campaign. This year they're putting them in vans and calling it the Outbreak Tour.

The campaign works hard to adopt a glib and sarcastic voice familiar to many young people. For instance, the introduction to the Tour, on their website reads: "So, we were doing a little spring cleaning and we found all these big, orange trucks up in the attic. They were just taking up a crap-load of space and collecting dust."

The Outbreak Tour has an MTV "Road Rules" kind of feel. Throughout the summer, four different teams are stopping at concerts, festivals, parades, action sport events, skateparks and beaches in and around New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Atlanta. The groups say they hope to start an ongoing youth movement against the tobacco industry and the amount of outreach they'e planning does makes that sound possible. By the end of the tour, 80 youth traveling in 13 "truth trucks," equipped with video games and other technology, will have made 448 stops. They hope to reach more than 1.85 million teens.

Participants, like Marissa Parsons, a twenty-year-old student at the University of Southern California decided to apply for a job with the tour, after seeing truth commercials on TV. After an application and interview process Marissa became a member of the "LA team."

"We're basically just out there on foot," she says. "If we hear about a hot spot, we go out there that day. We just try to go anywhere, try to get the message out. Talk as loud as we can."

Spreading the message doesn't stop at talking. Branded and slick, with truth "gear" in tow, Marissa and her colleagues spend a summer helping to get an important message out to as many youth as possible, as far as possible and as fast as possible. Marissa and her colleagues hand out truth clothing and propaganda to the eager teenagers that flock around truth trucks. They participate in giveaways and play with Interactive Sega Dreamcast stations. There they also get to hear DJs spin and watch break dancing, spoken word and free style contests.

But it's unclear what role the youth on the truth teams are actually playing. Are they anti-tobacco activists, or "marketers," as Susie Santelina another member of the LA team referred to them (see the interview with Susie below)?

Truth Facts:

Tobacco companies put ammonia in cigarettes that make their brain absorb more nicotine than it normally would."

They add licorice and cocoa, which sound innocent, except when you burn them they act as broncho-dilators -- which make you inhale more smoke so the nicotine gets further into your body

The tobacco industry lets people believe that light cigarettes are better for you, when actually they can be even worse.

As you may guess, some of the youth flocking to the truck aren't interested in hearing messages, profound or not.

"There have been a few times when I don't feel like we've really been listened to," Marissa admits. "Sometimes I feel like they're more interested in getting the free shirt -- which is pretty cool -- than hearing the facts."

This isn't a surprise -- especially when the truth about the tobacco industry is packaged in a form teens can physically consume. And wear. And stick on their walls. And spray-paint with the use of cool stencils.

But, Marissa offers signs that the truth anti-tobacco message is sinking in. She tells stories of smokers who have come up to the truck, with a cigarette in hand, admitting their habit, while maintaining support for the truth campaigns anti-tobacco message. The truth crews also host their own events, and encourage the youth they meet to find ways to incorporate facts about the tobacco industry, into their art and into their lives. One brochure reads: "every 8 seconds Tobacco loses another customer. They die." According to Marissa, in spoken word competitions, some youth are eager to weave this kind of message into "their spoken word flow."

"They just kept spitting out these facts we had told them," she recalls. "It was amazing. They just put it into rhyming sentences and it was really cool."

While seeing youth "spitting out" facts, doesn't prove they've incorporated the message into their lives, some recent studies certainly do. One year after the settlement between the state of Florida and the tobacco industry, Florida's Department of Health did a statewide survey. They found that the percentage of youth using tobacco in the past 30 days had declined by 7.4 percent among middle school youth and 4.8 percent among high school youth.

"Throughout the summer, four different teams are stopping at concerts, festivals, parades, action sport events, skateparks and beaches in and around New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Atlanta."
But the truth is using the same advertising tactics to appeal to youth that the Tobacco industry brandishes to attract its "replacement smokers" -- young people targeted to replace the third of its customers who will die from tobacco-related causes.

The Master Settlement Agreement with the tobacco companies provides for a payment of $206 billion by the tobacco industry to forty-six US states and territories over the next 25 years. $185 million of that was allocated to advertising and publicity relations activities. But much of this is cycled right back into corporate pockets. It has paid for the ads to appear in prime advertising spaces, as well as in magazines like Vibe and Cosmo Girl. The new round of ads first appeared during this year's Super Bowl -- in the ad space that is said to be the most expensive possible.

In the glossy black, silver and orange press packet about the truth Outbreak Tour, one fact sheet reads "nearly 80 percent of teens know the truth campaign through its powerful television advertisements." This is a large number, but probably not unrealistic, when you think about the fact that the ads are regularly shown on television networks popular with teens like MTV, FOX and the WB.

Marissa stresses the importance of targeting youth where they are found most. "I think MTV, the radio and certain magazines are where [our message] is gonna hit the most youth," she says. "And we're trying to counteract what the tobacco industry does. If they could advertise on MTV, they would. They can't, so they advertise in Rolling Stone."

Many would argue that using popular forms of media already aimed at youth is just plain smart. In a statement about their strategy for the campaign, Crispin, Porter and Bugusky, a representative from the campaign recounts their decision to center the campaign around a single brand.

Truck "If we wanted youth to really embrace the anti-tobacco effort," the statement reads, "it made sense that we should deliver it just like other successful U.S. youth products, such as Adidas, FUBU, or Abercrombie and Fitch, in a branded form they understood."

Beyond branding, the group admits to using a fair amount of reverse psychology. Despite the fact that "1200 people die every day from tobacco-related illnesses in the USA," their researchers found that tobacco ranked low on young people's lists of what worried them most. But instead of passing judgement on smokers, they chose to focus on the way the tobacco industry has targeted and lied to young people. Crispin, Porter and Bugusky call it an "anti-manipulation strategy." And, while it makes sense that youth respond to being told that they have choices, calling their advertising approach an anti-manipulation strategy seems hypocritical. Youth do respond to massages that tell them they are in control. In control to do to exactly what, we have to wonder.

"$185 million was allocated to advertising and publicity relations activities. But much of this is cycled right back into corporate pockets. It has paid for the ads to appear in prime advertising spaces, as well as in magazines like Vibe and Cosmo Girl."
It tells youth that it's OK to be rebellious and appears critical of corporate domination. But in the end, it is doing so within a framework that actually supports big business. The campaign tries to harness the same feeling of being in control and needing to rebel that the cigarette industry has used for years. While it is exciting to see these tactics used against the tobacco industry, it also approaches Big Tobacco as if it exists outside of a context in which other corporations like Coca-Cola the Gap are also working to convince people that they have the right, and the individual strength to GO OUT AND BUY.

On a similar note, the advertisers did involve youth in the process of creating the campaign, but not directly. Youth help inspire and guide the shape of the campaign, but are never called upon to create the ads we see on T.V. and in magazines. "If truth was to be inspirational, relevant, and 'cool,'" the advertisers say, "it had to be more than a poster contest."

These ad execs did their homework. They've figured out that we are much less likely to make informed decisions not to smoke if we are given as much information as possible. Attacking people for what they are already doing doesn't work. But networks like MTV make money off of marketing to, and trying to manipulate youth into accepting what advertisers want to be popular. If you look closely, the truth campaign appears to be stuck somewhere in between doing a service for millions of people and adding to a culture of consumerist manipulation.

The Outbreak Tour will run through August. Visit their website to find out about where you, too can get some free gear (Oh yeah, and a message about Tobacco).

Mikhaila Richards, 19, is the Wiretap Summer Fellow and a student at Smith College. Send comments about this article to her at
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