Can mint-green baseball caps, dodgeballs stenciled with the number "1200," and a whist tournament dissuade kids from smoking? According to a renegade team of designers and community leaders, the answer is yes.
Before you dismiss this wild effort, consider the pedigree of the team: It's the latest effort of Legacy, the antitobacco education foundation whose "Truth" ad campaign is credited with keeping 450,000 teens from starting to smoke between 2000 and 2002. This past October, Legacy convened 45 designers, health experts, entrepreneurs, entertainers, and community activists in Detroit for a summit designed to address the scourge of menthol cigarettes in urban communities. The five-day workshop, dubbed MenthLab and held at the College for Creative Studies, was meant to generate grassroots ideas for products that would appeal to teens and steer them clear of menthol cigs—the cancer stick of choice for many African-American adolescents.
When the FDA outlawed flavorings in cigarettes, in June 2009, it left menthol off the banned list. The tobacco industry was barred from manufacturing cherry, toffee-apple, or chocolate-cinnamon smokes—all sweet flavorings that, like menthol, help disguise a cigarette's taste, toxicity, and addictiveness. Why was menthol spared? In a Washington Post editorial, former secretary of health, education, and welfare Joseph A. Califano Jr. noted that the tobacco industry lobbied heavily for the exemption. Menthol cigarettes make up 28% of the U.S. market, and according to the FDA's Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee, 80% of African-American smokers prefer menthol, as do one-half of middle-school-age Hispanic and Asian-American smokers. Legacy CMO Eric Asche had become increasingly alarmed by menthol cigarettes' seductive power over youth and was casting about for new ways to address the problem. At a 2010 dinner with Adam and Marty Butler of Butler Bros., an Austin creative firm with a focus on cause marketing, Asche explained that he could not rely solely on advertising to attack menthol. Ad rates were up 40% over the past decade, and the foundation's investments—built up from money donated by tobacco companies as a result of the 1989 settlement—had taken a pounding during the recession. "Eric was talking about his pain points," Adam says. "He was looking to find an additional revenue stream."
The Butler brothers pitched the idea of a line of products or events that would be cocreated with the communities that smoke the most menthol. When Asche expressed interest, they reached out to Greg Galle and John Beilenberg, cofounders of California-based Common Lab, both of whom had pioneered a similar project for the human-trafficking organization Not for Sale. As that project proved, if the stuff is appealing enough, it can open the door for a conversation. For instance, a limited-edition Not For Sale T-shirt became an instant hit among British celebs at last fall's London Fashion Week. The concept, says Adam, is to create appealing opportunities for a teen audience to be primed to take in Legacy's devastating message about the perils of cigarettes.
Legacy's MenthLab workshop envisioned ways to reach kids at multiple venues. Dodgeballs and basketball courts might be stenciled with "1200," a reference to the number of people who die every day from tobacco-related illnesses. Legacy may equip local parks with mint-colored basketballs and rims. Hip-hop stars, such as Mike E, might partner with Legacy in a mobile recording studio where teens could learn how to produce music and upload it to the Internet; other teens could listen to their work on the Truth website; and video games might feature Mint Money that teens could redeem for Truth gear. Mint green became a popular theme. "We loved the idea of taking back a color that's been hijacked to sell tobacco," says Adam.
These ideas were among the more than 100 concepts delivered by MenthLab, which included hip-hop artist Ro Spit, fashion designer Jeff Staple, artist Tucker Nichols, Little Bets author Peter Sims, and Youthville Detroit CEO Judith Jackson. A dozen or so concepts were prototyped. Legacy plans to launch some of them within the next few months. The organization will continue to sound the alarm about the hazards of tobacco, but Asche believes the products will allow for a more nuanced approach. "If we bring down the hammer at every opportunity, our audience will tune us out," he says. "We will become an annoying presence, versus a brand that rewards you for the engagement. Both tactics are necessary. Discerning what is appropriate at a specific moment in time is vital."
Legacy has no illusions about the asymmetry of the battle. "We'll never be able to out-shout the industry," Asche says. "They have the money, the distribution, and the addictive product." The cigarette industry spends around $29 million a day on marketing. But Asche hopes Legacy's new products may bring an emotional, engaging weapon to the fight. "Design can promote a set of ideas and create commitment and advocacy," says Galle. "Our opponents can't really compete—they can just try and stop it." If MenthLab works in the Motor City, Legacy hopes to roll the model out to other cities, like a not-for-profit version of Chrysler's "Imported From Detroit" campaign. "Detroit's the David vs. Goliath of city stories," says Asche. "The odds are against us, but we will prevail."
A version of this article appeared in the February 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.