According to medical anthropologist Dr. Michael L. Tan, “Smoking will kill more people in the next twenty years than HIV/AIDS, accidents, homicides, and suicides combined.”
One report estimates that national health care costs for tobacco-related diseases for a population with a smoking prevalence rate of 50% could add up to almost 2% of GDP, or nearly 20% of the country’s total healthcare budget of just under RM20billion (US$6.5billion).
Little wonder then that countries such as Singapore are doing everything they can to encourage smokers to quit. Unfortunately, most of these efforts revolve around advertising campaigns.
And with advertising becoming increasingly ineffective, it is little wonder that the number of smokers shows no sign of a significant reduction.
This despite the fact that Singapore has one of the highest tax rates on cigarettes, the strictest rules on smoking in public places and those under 18 can even be fined just for carrying cigarettes.
In 2010 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 were ‘Live it up without lighting up’ and examples of the print ads can be seen and . 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 were 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, the then 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 liked the creatives for this campaign. I think they were really well executed and I wanted the campaign to work. But at the time I sincerely doubted this was the right 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. Data shows that traditional marketing tools are even less effective today than they were as recently as 10 years ago. Consumers simply don’t listen to corporate driven mass marketing the way they used to, especially when copy uses vague terms such as ‘tend’.
Malaysia spent RM100 million (US$30 million) over 5 years on such a campaign that was ineffective in bringing down the number of smokers in Malaysia and the smoking rate of men in Malaysia is still over 50%.
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 quite often failing health results in psychological decline.
Now I don’t know if these campaigns are working but if the goal is to reduce smoking then the answer is no they are not. Because according to The Wall Street Journal, more Singaporeans, especially young adults are smoking than ever before.
According to a Singapore National Health Survey in 2010, the proportion of smokers among young Singaporeans aged 18 to 29 was 16.3% in 2010, up 33% from 12.3% in 2004.
Even though previous ad campaigns did not work, the Government of Singapore commissioned Ogilvy & Mather Singapore to develop another campaign. This time the message moved from anti-smoking to pro-quitting. The campaign highlighted citizens who had quit smoking and made them “quitter champions.” ‘‘.
This campaign also featured across traditional and digital media. From 1st June 2013 a quit smoking movement will try to encourage smokers to quit for 28 days in the hope those that commit to the programme will not go back to smoking at the end of the 28 days. We shall see.
So what should Singapore do to reduce smoking in the country?
Countries that really want to reduce the number of smokers (and every country should want to because the burden on the health services will not get better) must understand that advertising is not going to solve their problems. There is no silver bullet to reducing the number of smokers.
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. For instance if Singaporeans are becoming smokers when they do their national service, is an advertising campaign going to change that? Of course not. The issue needs to be addressed inside the National Service camps.
It is imperative that audiences are identified and then engaged individually, on a one to one basis. It will be an expensive and long term effort (but not as expensive as wasting money on advertising campaigns and health costs). 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 will involve retailers where most cigarettes are sold. But before banning sales at retailers, alternative sources of income for retailers must be identified. Once implemented, policing of 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 government driven creative campaigns.
Singapore has done many things right in the past to reduce the numbers of smokers. Investing valuable resources on creative driven campaigns that are proven to have been ineffective in the past is not the way forward.