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Are Posters Too Hot to Handle? : Smoking: Some educators are wary of using the Great American Smokeout artwork. But backers say the messages are effective.

November 17, 1993|STEVE EMMONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fearing that Joe Camel is gaining in the battle for the hearts and lungs of American youth, the American Cancer Society is adding bite to its California school anti-smoking campaign.

As part of its annual Great American Smokeout on Thursday, the society's posters aim directly at early and middle teens, declaring "Butts Are Gross" and demanding "Get Your Butt Out of My Face."

The cancer society estimates that 3,000 American children, reacting to tobacco advertising, start smoking every day. In a memo to its local chapters, state headquarters said the time has come "to go head to head with the tobacco industry's multibillion-dollar advertising campaigns."

While conceding that some adults may not like the blunt posters--Orange County, for example, is not distributing the one titled "Butts Are Gross" except upon request--the state society says the posters are effective with kids. "We're just trying to speak their language," a spokesman said.

"Butts Are Gross" shows a cigarette butt together with 11 portraits of animals, all photographed from behind.

Another poster show a woman's face, a cigarette in her mouth, and is captioned "Get Your Butt Out of My Face."

A third, called "Sophisticated Lady," shows what is probably an attractive woman, but you can't tell because of the repulsive crust of tar over her face, shoulders and hair. The message: "If what happened on your inside happened on your outside, would you still smoke?"

Strong stuff for the schoolroom bulletin board, but is it too strong?

No, say cancer society officials, not if you ask the kids. Previewing the posters to groups of students has shown that they get the point and like the posters, said Justin Rogers, public relations spokesman for state society headquarters.

Polling 687 students in Orange County, for example, showed that regardless of grade level, the students got the anti-smoking, anti-glamour message of the posters, said Margaret Edwards, spokeswoman for the Orange County society.

But some educators have objected. Society headquarters has urged local chapters to test the waters early, because its own polling brought mixed reviews.

Some educators were wary of using the materials. They were concerned that students (especially in fourth to sixth grades) might use the term butts as an excuse for disrespectful jokes and behavior toward others, the headquarters warned.

That was the reaction Orange County society officials got when they showed the posters to three teachers.

"Children get the wrong ideas so easily," said Ruth Hatch, a kindergarten teacher at Garfield Elementary School in Santa Ana. "It becomes an object of humor rather than a lesson. Smoking is not funny. The one I saw that said, 'Get your butt out of my face,' I wouldn't use that in school. As teachers, we have to promote the social model. We don't call anybody a 'butt-head.' Children need to be treated with respect."

Although private agencies and companies are ordering the "Butts Are Gross" poster "by the hundreds," the Orange County cancer society decided not to distribute it to schools except upon request, Edwards said.

By contrast, the Los Angeles Unified School District has ordered 6,000 of the posters, along with 24,500 of "Out of My Face."

"I knew they were going to be controversial based on reactions in my office," said Barbara Dietsch, who coordinates anti-smoking education for the Los Angeles district.

"But the teachers love them. These are experienced health teachers. In the last couple of years, they've become aware they're competing with MTV and other audio-visual media the kids are exposed to. Sometimes it takes a 'Butts Are Gross' poster to get their attention."

That was the conclusion of the Minnesota Department of Public Health when it commissioned an advertising campaign aimed at 12- to 14-year-olds in 1990. That age group was important, the department decided, because studies had shown that most smokers started at that age.

"Kids that age do not see themselves as middle-aged adults who get things like cancer and heart disease," said Buddy Ferguson, the health department's spokesman. "We decided the best way was to use humor and impart a notion that smoking is socially unacceptable. That carries a lot more weight with that age group."

The department's advertising agency, Martin Willams Advertising in Minneapolis, decided to attack smoking without directly attacking smokers. In a TV commercial and then a poster, various animals were shown smoking. The message: If you think this is silly, imagine yourself doing it.

The campaign was such a local success--surveys showed nearly 90% recognition among school-age children--that the health department asked for a sequel. Martin Willams took the obvious turn: Use the other end of the animals. The resulting "Butts Are Gross" TV commercial and poster were even more popular and won several advertising awards.

Lyle Wedemeyer, the agency's creative director and writer for the project, said he spent hours watching his teen-age niece and nephew. He concluded that "you really have to suspend a lot of common beliefs about advertising. Normally we're working on very sophisticated messages and trying to find a subtle approach. Here we just kind of hit them right over the head. We didn't expect it to be as successful as it was. I think it just hits people between the eyes."

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