Creative campaign not the solution to smoking issues in Singapore

As with many issues, Singapore has a zero tolerance approach to smoking and in particular, teen smoking. Get caught selling cigarettes to minors and you face a fine of over US$6,000.

Anyone under the age of 18 caught carrying cigarettes, carrying not smoking, and it is an automatic fine of US$30. Get caught again and the fine is US$60. If you don’t pay the fine, your parents spend a night in jail.

Smoking is banned in all public places such as hotels, supermarkets, restaurants, bars, shopping malls, museums, theatres, airports and other public transport places, libraries, indoor and outdoor sports arenas and government and private offices.

If a person serving in the military is caught smoking whilst in uniform he or she is disciplined and fined. Like other countries, cigarette packets carry gruesome images of what smoking can do to throats, mouths, unborn babies and so on.

Little wonder then that according to a recent Synovate survey, Singapore has the lowest numbers of smokers (13%) across a random selection of countries including Bulgaria, Cyprus, France, Italy, Korea, the Netherlands, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Taiwan, Thailand, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom.

Unfortunately many of these smokers started smoking in their teens. According to a Pfizer poll in May 2010, 84% of smokers started the habit in their teens and some started smoking as young as 12.

And although at 9%, Singapore has one of the lowest rates of teen smoking in the world, the Health Promotion Board is keen to address the issue of smoking amongst young adults and teens.

So the Health Promotion Board appointed Ogilvy & Mather Singapore to develop a creative campaign to encourage young people to reject cigarettes and live a tobacco free life that will improve their appearance, fitness, spending power and contribute positively to the environment.

The results are ‘Live it up without lighting up’ and they can be seen ogilvy_smoke-1 and ogilvy_smoke2-1. The campaign featured above the line (ATL), out of home (OOH), digital, radio and events such as the Great Audio Experience, held on 29th May 2010 as part of World No Tobacco Day celebrations.

The creatives feature gorgeous, young, happy, confident people with unblemished skin in semi cartoon like environments. Copy tells readers that “Non smokers tend to look younger than smokers of the same age” and “Non smokers tend to be physically fitter than smokers.” Goals are to communicate a better more beautiful and green world populated by gorgeous young things who are fitter, healthier and generally in a better place as a result of not smoking.

According to Jon Loke, Head of Art, Ogilvy & Mather Singapore, the agency was careful to ensure that the campaign would not talk down to them. “We needed to turn the traditional way anti-smoking campaigns are carried out on their heads to create a message that would appeal to youths. Hence, the campaign encourages, empowers and ultimately celebrates a smoke-free life.”

Now I really like the creatives, I think they are really well executed and I really hope the campaign works. But I sincerely doubt this is the way forward. That’s because a creative driven campaign, no matter how much it turns things upside down, is unlikely to have an impact on the number of smokers in Singapore.

Malaysia spent RM100 million (US$30 million) over 5 years on such a campaign that was inneffective in bringing down the number of smokers in Malaysia.

In the UK, after extensive research of more than 8,500 smokers over a ten-year period, the Institute for Social and Economic research found that the warnings on cigarette packets that smoking kills or maims are ineffective in reducing the number of smokers.

Likewise, chilling commercials or emotionally disturbing programs are also ineffective. The study also discovered that even when a close family member becomes ill from the effects of smoking, the smoker takes no notice.

In fact, according to the study, smokers only reduce the number of cigarettes or sometimes quit when their own personal health is at stake. And even failing health may not persuade a smoker to reduce or even stop smoking because smoking is linked to a lack of psychological wellbeing and often failing health results in psychological decline.

Even before this campaign, Singapore has successfully reduced smoking amongst youths. Statistics released in 2009 by the Students’ Health Survey (SHS) 2009 suggest a downward trend in youth smoking, with the proportion of youngsters who had tried smoking, even one or two puffs, declining from 26% in 2000 to 16% in 2009. That’s an impressive statistic and I would focus more on what drove those achievements rather than new creative campaigns.

I have a hunch that this campaign will not have a dramatic effect on the number of smokers in Singapore. Data shows that traditional marketing tools are even less effective today than they were 10 years ago. Consumers simply don’t listen to mass marketing the way they used to, especially when copy uses vague terms such as ‘tend’.

What is required is a data driven approach to the issue. Specific and comprehensive qualitative research with relevant targeted questions related to each segment (and each segment will be specific and targetted) that are designed to deliver actionable data. I’m sure this information is already available.

It is imperative that the audience is identified and then engaged individually, on a one to one basis. It will be an expensive and long term effort. That doesn’t mean repeating the same one size fits all commercials or messages, this means developing a relationship with these partners through engagement.

Also critical to the development of the strategy will be the buy in from stakeholders such as doctors, educators, retailers and others. Discussions must be held with these key elements to determine strategies. One such strategy might be to find alternative sources of income for retailers. Policing of key stakeholders such as retailers must be ramped up.

Once research is completed and analysed, a comprehensive strategy must be developed featuring a fully integrated program to communicate with all stakeholders with specific emphasis on education at residential level and dynamic, preventative and educational programmes for schools. Existing smokers will be targetted individually through interviews with doctors, rather than one-size-fits all creative campaigns.

Only once the strategic blueprint is ready can the implementation begin. There is no easy way to reduce the number of smokers in Singapore. It’s going to take a long term investment in time, effort and money.

Singapore has done many things right in the past to reduce the numbers of smokers. Investing valuable resources on creative driven campaigns that have not worked in the past is not the way forward.


4 thoughts on “Creative campaign not the solution to smoking issues in Singapore

  1. I have to agree that I don’t see a single campaign changing things, or even a campaign. Since this is a “behavior change” more than anything else – it’s going to take more that an ad campaign to do this. It as you mention needs to be broadened and done as an ongoing process – not a campaign, a burst but a process.


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