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FDA's Smoking Prevention Campaigns: Reaching Teens Where They 'Live'


Fresh Empire Campaign graphic

Fresh Empire is the agency’s first attempt at targeting underserved, multicultural populations, including African American, Hispanic, and Asian American/Pacific Islander youth.

If you think smoking is part of a bygone, “Mad Men” era, think again. Young people, in particular, are still very much at risk. Every day in the United States more than 2,600 youth under age 18 smoke their first cigarette, and nearly 600 youth under age 18 become daily smokers.

As a regulator of tobacco products, FDA also makes a strong commitment to educate the public (especially youth) about the harmful effects of using those products, says Kathleen Crosby, Director of the Office of Health Communication and Education (OHCE) at FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products (CTP).

“The goal of our youth-oriented smoking prevention campaigns is to save kids’ lives by helping them rethink their relationship with tobacco,” she says. “For these kids, we’re looking to disrupt their progression from thinking about smoking tobacco or starting to experiment with it, to becoming daily users.” Through these campaigns, which have very distinct target audiences, FDA is looking to stop smoking behavior in its tracks.

The Real Cost

The Real Cost Campaign graphic

The Real Cost, launched in 2014, is FDA’s first national youth tobacco prevention campaign and its largest effort to date. The Real Cost aims to reach an estimated 10 million kids ages 12 to 17 who are open to smoking or already experimenting with cigarettes. In 2016, FDA plans to expand The Real Cost to include rural youth at risk of using smokeless tobacco.

What makes The Real Cost unique?

“We’re presenting new, research-based ideas that kids haven’t heard before,” Crosby says. To do so, The Real Cost uses provocative imagery and language kids can relate to, to dramatize the negative health consequences of smoking in a meaningful way and demonstrate that every cigarette comes with a "cost" that is more than just financial. For example, in one ad a teen is shown pulling out his own tooth to pay for a pack of cigarettes to highlight the potential consequence of tooth loss from smoking.

The Real Cost also makes active use of metaphors kids can relate to, such as equating tobacco addiction to having a bully in your life who is constantly telling you what to do and when to do it, something that FDA’s research tells us is compelling to our independence-seeking target audience, Crosby says.

The Real Cost uses advertising on TV, radio and the Internet, as well as in print publications, movie theaters and outdoor locations like bus shelters.

The Real Cost is off to a great start. The campaign was awarded a gold Effie in the Disease Awareness and Education category at the 2015 North American Effie Awards as one of the most effective marketing efforts in the past year for its insightful communications strategy, outstanding creative, and success in market.

Fresh Empire

Another targeted campaign effort—Fresh Empire—launched in fall 2015. Fresh Empire is the agency’s first attempt at targeting underserved, multicultural populations, including African American, Hispanic, and Asian American/Pacific Islander youth.

“These are kids we know—from research on prevalence, demographics, and psychographics—identify strongly with the hip-hop culture. Smoking is commonly a part of that culture, and these teens are at high risk for it,” Crosby says.

The campaign associates living tobacco-free with desirable hip-hop lifestyles. It uses a variety of interactive marketing tactics including the use of traditional paid media, engagement through multiple digital platforms, and outreach at the local level.

Both campaigns focus in on the dangers of addiction through loss of control, a persuasive message for youth who lead stressful lives, often magnified by low socioeconomic conditions and intensive peer pressure.

“Kids sometimes view tobacco as a way to cope with their problems and exert control over them,” Cosby says. “We point out that by smoking, they actually cede control to tobacco, resulting in outcomes that negatively affect appearance, skin, teeth—we know from research are important to teens,” Crosby says.

Connecting Through Social Media

Both campaigns also make active use of social media on peer-to-peer platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. ”We’re reaching youth where they—sometimes quite literally—live and spend their time,” Crosby says. “It brings credibility to our brand and enables us the opportunity to have one-on-one conversations.” In fact, The Real Cost has resulted in more than two million conversations through social media platforms so far.

Moreover, social media also gives teens an opportunity to talk back and challenge the information presented. Crosby views this as a good thing.

“Many kids don’t believe that they are (or will become) addicted—or that they’ll suffer long-term health consequences like cancer,” Crosby says. “These are new messages to youth, and they reach out for more information about it on social media, opening up a two-way dialogue that is more engaging and effective than, for example, a 30-second TV commercial might be.”

What’s Next?

In May 2016, the agency released the "This Free Life” campaign, which is aimed at preventing and reducing tobacco use among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) young adults who are occasional smokers. And the FDA expanded the award-winning “The Real Cost” campaign to educate rural, white male teenagers about the negative health consequences associated with smokeless tobacco use.

In addition, FDA has set up a longitudinal evaluation study following thousands of kids over a 2-year period to determine if exposure to the campaign is contributing to a decrease in smoking among youth ages 12 to 17.

“Both the level of engagement we’re seeing from teens on our social channels and our first two waves of evaluation data are promising,” Crosby says. “Indications are that we’re changing kids’ attitudes and beliefs in the right direction.”

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