How The Truth Campaign Plans To End Youth Smoking Once And For All

The Legacy Foundation CEO Robin Koval talks about the organization’s rebrand, new campaign, and hopes to inspire the end of tobacco.

How The Truth Campaign Plans To End Youth Smoking Once And For All
[Photo: Flickr user Dylan Payne]

It’s been credited with lowering the teen smoking rate from 23% just 15 years ago, to just 8% today. Its stunt-style ads, in which body bags were piled outside a tobacco company’s headquarters and a smoking-scarred cowboy serenaded onlookers with an electrolarynx-assisted voice, grabbed people’s attention like no other anti-tobacco PSAs ever had. The Legacy Foundation’s Truth campaign, originally by agencies Arnold Worldwide and Crispin Porter & Bogusky changed the framework and tone for communicating with smokers and aspiring smokers: this wasn’t your mom, dad or teacher wagging a finger at you for lighting up, instead it aimed to be a cool kid there to clue you in on a diabolical conspiracy.


Now The Legacy Foundation is taking the name of its most famous work and rebranding the entire organization as the Truth Initiative. And even though youth smoking levels are way down, CEO Robin Koval says this is not the time to rest on the laurels of past victories, and the group is determined to use more than just a few clever ads to continue help end the tobacco industry.

The latest ad, which will run during the 2015 Teen Choice Awards

A quick history lesson: The Legacy Foundation was born out of The 1998 Master Settlement Agreement between the state Attorneys General of 46 states, five U.S. territories, the District of Columbia and the five largest tobacco companies in America regarding the advertising, marketing and promotion of tobacco products. In addition to requiring the tobacco industry to pay the settling states billions annually for the indefinite future, setting standards and restrictions on the sale and marketing of cigarettes, it also set aside $1.55 billion to fund the American Legacy Foundation’s ad campaign. The first Truth campaign was so good, Philip Morris USA actually threatened to stop its funding until a Delaware court intervened.

Koval says it’s time to tie the organization’s advertising efforts together with its broader anti-smoking efforts. When Truth first launched in 2000, there was no Facebook and Twitter, and she says the feeling was that it was a good idea to keep the parent organization in the background. “Today people do want to know who is behind the messages they see in media, so we felt we should be aligned with that,” says Koval. “The Truth campaign is very famous but no one really knew who was behind it. We’re incredibly proud of that work but it’s not the only thing we do. We have a research and policy institute called the Schroeder Institute, we have a very robust evaluation science and research group, we have another group that does community engagement and youth activism. So there was an opportunity to create more visibility and clarity for the organization to make sure that although we’ve had all this success with the Truth campaign, we have a platform to tell people, ‘Hey, this battle’s not won yet, there’s still a lot of work to be done.’”

Tap the 92%

Now that the youth smoking rate is down to 8%, you might think “Single digits, mission accomplished, non?” No. Koval says in order to fight complacency, the organization is trying to tap the social power of the 92% of kids who don’t smoke cigarettes to get youth smoking down to zero. “Our big opportunity is that huge group who can influence their peers and get them to know the Truth message, versus the $9 billion a year the tobacco industry is still spending to recruit their 1,200 “replacement” smokers to make up for that many who die every day.

Last September, the organization and agency 72andSunny launched the “Finishers” campaign, aimed at inspiring young people to end the smoking “epidemic” for good. Koval says positioning that goal as something young people can have a very real impact on really resonates. “We know this generation wants to, and feels that they can, create change in the world,” says Koval. “There are so many tough problems in the world, some of which are long-term challenges, but this is one that if this generation gets very involved, they can solve it. From our research we know young people get incredibly excited about that.”

New TV ads with that familiar Truth attitude are still part of the plan, but Koval says that more important is creating information and content that can be shared. “We know when we put these messages out there to kids that the tobacco industry is trying to recruit them, kids really take it seriously,” says Koval. “So our job is to give them this info and make sure they have the tools to share it.”


Since the Finishers campaign launched, the organization has seen a 175% increase in visits to its website, and a 650% increase in Facebook engagement. Not only does Truth heavily focus group its advertising, it also taps a 10,000-person group of young people it will follow over the next three years as part of a larger academic study. “We call it out Truth Longitudinal Cohort or TLC,” says Koval. “It’s measuring awareness, attitude, knowledge, belief, and ultimately behavior change among young people. It’ll be a while before we can report the results, which we’ll be publishing in scientific journals, we already know from our first six months that we’re already shifting youth attitudes towards more negative feelings about tobacco.”

Surround the Audience

On the back of the rebrand comes the next phase of the Finishers, which Koval says will continue to hit on the unexpected ways the tobacco industry continues to lure in young consumers. The new ad, which launches during the 2015 Teen Choice Awards, and will air during other high-profile events like the VMAs, doesn’t talk about cigarettes as much as more non-traditional smoking that is seeing an increase in popularity.

“The tobacco industry isn’t sitting idly by watching this happen,” says Koval. “Unregulated products like little cigars which are cheaper, have flavors, and come in smaller packs–all these things that make them attractive to kids, and many people don’t know it’s just as dangerous as cigarettes. Also hookah use has exploded, but a one-hour session can have the same effect as smoking five packs of cigarettes. It’s crazy.”

Given its target audience of 15- to 21-year-olds, it’s no surprise the Truth Initiative is spending upwards of 40% of its marketing investment in digital and social, balancing its TV spend with ongoing work across all the obvious platforms like Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and Periscope. Even when it does create a TV ad, it’s still throwing to social channels. Back in February the TV spot “Left Swipe Dat” featured YouTube stars talking about how unappealing smoking pics were on Tinder.

“We use TV still, typically as the big tentpole event pieces like last year at the VMAs and this year with the Teen Choice Awards, but we need to surround our audience where they are,” says Koval. “We’re trying to change a social behavior, so we want to use the language of the social web to talk to young people in way that’s relevant to them. YouTube celebrities, dating apps, these are ways to talk about things that are serious but in a way that young people can relate to. We don’t want to be seen as parents or teachers, we want to be seen as a peer.”

Big Tobacco Is Down, But Far From Out

The organization’s rebrand is an effort to focus, not only its efforts, but shine a brighter light on all that it does. Koval says it’s about tying its past marketing success directly to all the other ways the Truth Initiative is working to fight the tobacco industry.


“The Truth Initiative is about bringing that message to young people in a mass way, using science and research in our other programs, like developing evidence-based information to inform tobacco policy with the FDA and other government organizations,” says Koval. “Everything we do, in terms of helping determine the right kind of controls on tobacco, like youth access, packaging, taxing, and other things we know helps drive down tobacco use rates, particularly among young people.”

While overall youth smoking rates are down, Koval says there is also plenty of work to be done to make sure no one is left behind. “One thing that’s unfortunate about tobacco is that the people with the most money, access, and education adopt healthy behaviors first,” says Koval. “That leaves a lot of other people behind. The LGBT community, for example, has a very high rate of smoking. That’s why we need to keep this issue on people’s radar. Again, we’ve won a lot of battles but the war isn’t over yet.”


About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.