EDITORIAL: Feds force tobacco companies to advertise: But will youngsters get the message?

Decades ago, cigarette companies were banned from promoting their products via television and radio advertising. Ironically, now the government is forcing them to advertise.

As Wall Street Journal columnist Jo Craven McGinty explained last week, the ads are the result of a successful 1999 U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit, in which the feds won a verdict concluding that tobacco companies had distorted the health risks of smoking.

Terms of the penance were originally reached in 2006. But tobacco company appeals took a decade to adjudicate, so the media campaign is only now beginning.

But in a feat of incompetence that only the government could accomplish, terms of the original agreement — reached long “before social media and other digital platforms took off,” Ms. McGinty points out — were never updated. Thus, the ads won’t appear where most young people — the primary targets of the campaign — are likely to see them.

The pact calls for the cigarette companies to air 30- or 45-second TV spots five times a week for 52 weeks primarily on the major networks. They also must run full-page print ads in at least 45 newspapers on five Sundays (or Fridays) over the course of roughly four months. They must also run the ads on the papers’ websites.

Newspapers and network TV? That’s so retro.

Ms. McGinty notes that, according to Nielsen, 31 of the papers scheduled to run the ads are read by a combined 6 million millennials. There was no data available for younger readers.

On top of that, she reports, an average 1.9 million millennials and 1.2 million kids aged 2 to 17 watched ABC, CBS and NBC together in prime time or viewed content within seven days of broadcast last year.

Those numbers represent a tiny percentage of the nation’s 92.7 million teens and millennials. In addition, most of today’s kids are averse to commercials anyway.

“The vast majority of millennials and generation Z watch with multiple screens — TV and a tablet or phone open simultaneously,” Keith Niedermeier, who directs the undergraduate marketing program at the Penn’s Wharton School of Business, told Ms. McGinty. “They can shift their attention away from TV during commercial breaks.”

The federal government has been warning people about the dangers of smoking for a half-century. The number of smokers has dropped drastically in recent decades as people become more health conscious and the habit is now less socially acceptable. That’s likely to continue regardless of the forced ad buy — particularly when government lawyers signed off on a deal that ensures that few teens and young adults will ever get a glimpse of the tobacco company spots.

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