Unspun

This new, three-year contract is the second consecutive one for Asher/Gould, and its renewal was one of the few decisions not to draw the ire of the anti-tobacco coalition. Asher/Gould was effectively inoculated against attack on that front after one of Wilson's cabinet secretaries ordered the papering over of an Asher/Gould billboard and killed one of its TV spots before it was aired.

Because of its Los Angeles location -- California implemented the first anti-tobacco campaign of its kind -- Asher/Gould became the de facto industry leader in anti-smoking advertising. But as the market for such advertising grows, so grows the competition. In Massachusetts and Arizona, initiatives led to major contracts for home-state agencies.

"Unselling" a heavily promoted product that does, after all, give pleasure to millions of people is difficult enough. Even more difficult to persuade are the prime targets of the anti-tobacco campaign: 10- to 16-year-olds, the demographic group where 90 percent of all smokers pick up their addictions.

Asher/Gould President Bruce Silverman did not return phone calls last week, but in December 1995 he explained why one of his firm's harder-edged spots was popular with teens: "Young people hate to be manipulated, particularly by adults."

That ad shows a leering, yellow-toothed fisherman hauling out his catch, leaving them to flop to a gasping death on the dock because they've been "hooked." Even so, a sample reel of Asher/Gould's spots furnished by the Health Department tends to be pretty obliquely cerebral, rather than directed at a teen-age sensibility. Most of the messages either focus on getting adults to stop smoking or demonizing the tobacco industry. Even the two or three ads where teen-agers actually appear have a preachy tone.

In stark contrast is the newest generation of anti-tobacco ads. They come out of Arizona, the latest state to establish an excise-tax-financed anti-smoking ad fund.

Brad Christensen of the Arizona Department of Health Services says the Asher/Gould message "is not going to cause anybody to stop smoking. Everybody knows that tobacco companies are in it to make profits."

Christensen's agency chose the tactics proposed by the Riester Corp., a small, young, Phoenix company, for its $6 million, six-month campaign kickoff a year ago.

The tone is edgy, even rude. The slogan is "Tobacco. Tumor causing, teeth staining, smelly, puking habit." Each word was taken from comments by teen-age focus group participants, notes Riester's David Anderson. Riester's surveys show that 92 percent of the state's teen-agers know the words.

In one spot, a girl reaches for her boyfriend's popcorn container and mistakenly takes a swig of the globby brown tobacco juice he's been spitting, photographed by a "cup cam" -- that is, photographed disgustingly, from the bottom up.

"We're competing against Nike and Joe Camel," Anderson says in defense of the nauseating tack. And Riester took a page from the books of those two marketing success stories and developed a catalog of gear adorned with the "Tumor causing ..." slogan.

Finally, to go to where the boys and girls are, Riester developed the "Ash Kicker," a traveling anti-smoking caravan. Its main component is a 24-foot trailer made to look like the inside of a smoker's mouth, as envisioned by a former Disney set designer.

"Everybody sees it. It makes 25 to 30 stops a month," Anderson says. In a recent two-day event, he says, 30,000 kids passed through.

Riester's pitch has proved popular well beyond Arizona's borders. In fact, in a first-ever agreement with the federal Centers for Disease Control, Riester has made "all of our commercials available to anyone" basically at cost. So far, 38 states have asked for copies.

That's decidedly different from the secrecy that shrouds California's ad campaign. More telling, that secrecy raises a key question: Why spend scarce dollars reinventing the wheel when seemingly effective ads are available elsewhere for free?

Phyllis Orrick and Susan Rasky can be reached at SF Weekly, Attn: Unspun, 425 Brannan, San Francisco, CA 94107; phone: (415) 536-8139; e-mail: porrick@sfweekly.com.

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