An Ad-erage Day in the Life of a Kid

An Ad-erage Day in the Life of a Kid

7:00 AM: There goes his radio alarm, with his favorite station blaring promotions for VIrginia Slims Tennis or Marlboro Racing.

At breakfast, his mother sets out the cereal box--you know, the "Kellogg's Corn Flakes Winston Cup Commemorative" edition, with cigarette brand name "Winston" splashed on every side, and nary a health warning in sight. When his own mom advertises cigarettes to him with his corn flakes, he's got to wonder--geez, how bad can they be?

At the bus shelter, he sits under the Marlboro Man poster. On the bus, he rides past billboard after billboard hawking cigarettes. There are warnings on the billboards--can you see? It's that little white band at the bottom, printed in an unreadable font and style. The industry's policy is that they want no billboards within 500 feet of a school. That's the distance at which the warning becomes completely illegible.

Once at school, a friend shows off his Kool baseball cap, and the neat lighter he just got for "Camel Cash." Another got ahold of a "Newport Pleasure" t-shirt. One kid even has a Marlboro Panasonic disc player! Yeah, you're supposed to be 21 to get them (giggle-giggle).

He stops by the library to look up some information for his "Current Affairs" report. Not hard to find plenty of tobacco ads in the school library: Time, Newsweek, US News--all are filled with tobacco ads. It's hard to miss Time's 6-page Marlboro inside-cover spread in their historic "Person of the Century" issue. Kind of funny, really--open it up and the Marlboro Man's looking right at Albert Einstein!

After school, a stop by the convenience store--you can't even see inside the store, there are so many tobacco posters littering the windows. Once inside, it's a veritable deluge of promotional materials, with the cigarettes right out front for the picking (or shoplifting).

And it's not just this store--everywhere he goes, from the tiniest country town that only _has_ one store, to the biggest city, the ads are everywhere. For decades, all these little stores have been festooned with tobacco ads. It's been so ever since he was old enough to stretch up to the ad-filled counter to place his nickels on the Salem counter mat to buy a candy bar. Why, he's grown up with them, Their very ubiquity is an argument for smoking, and that argument goes--hey! no big deal. They're everywhere. Why fight it? Who cares? Not these store owners. Not all the other adults in town who apparently feel these ads (and by extension, smoking) are OK, as they too see them evey day.

As Michael Orey said in Assuming the Risk (Little, Brown, 1996; page 273):

It is not far from Pascagoula High School to Jerry Lee's supermarket, where one could get a capsule demonstration of just how pervasive tobacco promotion and advertising had become. For a visitor in 1996, it started in the parking lot. Along the full length of the grocery store was a fire lane, lined with a dozen orange traffic cones signaling cars to keep away. On top of each cone was a sign touting Marlboros as the "low price leader." Walking between the cones and into the entrance of the store, customers passed sand ashtrays mounted atop two-foot-high replicas of packs of Basic cigarettes. Just inside, the stand holding shopping baskets was decorated with a placard picturing an attractive young woman in a leather jacket - a Virginia Slims ad. Shoppers were then channeled past the customer service booth, which sported two back-lit ads touting Marlboro "gear" (hats, jackets, duffel bags), and then toward a rack holding coupon flyers, mounted with a Marlboro placard at toddler height.

Arriving in the produce section, shoppers at last reached a tobacco-free zone, but when they circled around to the checkout lines, they found a twenty-five-foot-long case of cigarettes and chewing tobacco, with the walls around it adorned with ads for Winston Select, Camel, and Marlboro. An electronic sign running like a stock ticker read: "Come to where the flavor is - Marlboro ... Thank you for shopping Jerry Lee's."

Just as the tobacco industry maintained that it opposed the sale of cigarettes to minors, it also denied advertising the product to kids. Yet the scope of promotional efforts at places like Jerry Lee's guaranteed that children from infancy on were inundated with the logos, slogans, and iconography of cigarettes.

He buys a Rolling Stone magazine, where all the glittering promotional prizes are presented in luscious color, to be had for a few cigarette pack coupons, and the little white lie of averring he's 21. (He knows they don't check too hard.)

And there's Joe Camel himself, handing him tics to a great rock concert. Ticketmaster's obviously got no problems with Joe.

Colorful cigarette ads fill his favorite magazines like jewelry, slick and enticing. No wonder he associates music, sports and youth culture with cigarettes--they fit so neatly, so coolly into the whole ambiance presented by Rolling Stone and other entertainment magazines. And not a single article dares to offer the slightest counterpoint to that message, repeated page after page, magazine after magazine, month after month, year after year. . .

At home, he catches a little baseball, and watches a thrilling home run go right over the Marlboro sign. Seems that Marlboro sign is situated where almost every home run is near it. In other sports, the sign always seems to be right by the clock. In auto racing, the really tough trick is to find the shots in which a cigarette brand is _not_ shown.

Then it's time for his dad to take him to the doctor's for a checkup. On the way they stop for gas, and he's sent inside to pay--he almost has to snake his hand past all the cigarette promotionals on the counter to give the clerk the money. He's got to figure if Mobil and Esso don't have a problem with cigarettes, what's the big deal?

In the doctor's waiting room, the mainstream magazines like Time, People and Vanity Fair feature more cigarette ads on their back covers. At his sister's asthma clinic, it's not unusal to see a pre-schooler's book on the table, right next to a big flashy Joe Camel ad on the back of an adult's magazine. And those Joe Camel ads are just as worthy of curious study as anything out of "Where the Wild Things Are." In fact, the kid's book looks pretty dull next to Joe's pizazz. How bad could cigarettes be if even doctors are advertising them?

They stop to fill the prescription. At McKay's Drug Stores, Love's Pharmacies, CVS, or Duane Reade in New York City, they have a Pharmacist in back and a Harm-assist in front--Joe Camel himself feigning cool in a huge display over the cashier line. And in many stores, tobacco has moved out to the shelves--look at all the chewing tobacco and cigars in the aisle right opposite the Pharmacist. These are the people who are supposed to be knowledgeable about your health. If tobacco is being so heavily promoted even here--hey, really, how bad could they be?

On the way back home, they stop for a few things at the supermarket--Grand Union, or Sloan's here in New York City. Dad unconsciously picks up a Marlboro hand-basket. Hey, if even Dad can act as a walking human billboard for them, how bad can they be?

Back home, Mom's reading a magazine. Geez, seems everything she reads--even her stodgy "Family Circle," "Women's Day," and "Better Homes and Gardens"--have no qualms advertising cigarettes. Seriously: how bad can they possibly be??

Now to watch a little TV. Let's see, what's on, where's that TV Guide. Ah, here we are, right past the "Misty" ad--"Superman II" at 8PM. That's the one where Superman crashes spectacularly into the side of a Marlboro-emblazoned truck (the sequence virtually scripted by Philip Morris--see "Superman II" and Marlboro), and Lois Lane chain-smokes Marlboro Lights. Or maybe he'll watch tough-guy Sylvester Stallone in a movie hawking Brown & Williamson cigarettes, just as Sly agreed to do for $500,000. Or that 1997 blockbuster, "Independence Day," the most spectacular and expensive cigar commercial ever filmed. Will Smith stops saving the world until he can get a couple of cigars. "This is important!" he says. And indeed, by the end of the film, even anti-cigar fuddy-duddy (andCigar Aficionado cover boy) Jeff Goldblum is cool now, and enjoys a victory cigar with Smith (product placement by Feature This).

Or maybe he'll watch some car racing like the Grand Prix, where Al Unsser Jr. whizzes his "Marlboro" car by the cameras a documented 39,000 times in each race. You're 9 years old and you like car racing? Then you'd better like cigarettes, 'cause Al Unsser Jr. doesn't drive the Sunkist Orange Juice car.

Or how about just a plain TV show, like Seinfeld--the one where Kramer hands out "Big Butt" cigars to Jerry and George (product placement by A-List Placements).

But now it's time for his favorite movie review program, Siskel and Ebert--the single most smoking-packed program on TV, with more shots of people--major movie stars, unknowns, young, old and in between, all sorts of glamorous people--smoking coolly per minute than any other regular show. There's hardly a movie, of course, that addresses the consequences of smoking, so these are never seen, or even referred to. The message is loud and clear.

His friend is sixteen, and can use his folks' car, so they're going to go out this weekend. He picked up one of those freebie city papers--the Village Voice or the New York Press, here in New York--and of course they are positively festooned with cigarette ads. Nightlife, music, movies--everything seems to go naturally with cigarettes. And no one says a word against it. What's a kid to think?

He's up a little late, but maybe he'll catch that cool David Letterman. In the introductory montage, there's Joe Camel winking at him from a 42nd St. billboard. And during Letterman's monologue, you can clearly see that the red-and-black patch in the background is a classic Marlboro ad. (In countries with strong cigarette advertising restrictions, marketers have succeeded in associating their product with more abstract qualities--all "Silk Cut" has to do, for example, is show a swath of purple silk and the "branding" for that cigarette is complete.)

There is no wonder why kid smoking is skyrocketing. Admittedly, I've condensed a lot into one day, but this is more than made up for by the fact that I listed each incident only _once_, whereas most occur over and over and over again, day after day after day, ad nauseam.

Kids today are faced with a relentless, daily, almost hourly, mind-numbing, spirit-debilitating, reality-bending onslaught of tobacco ads, and the presentation of tobacco use as a nearly universal and cool activity. Not hard to see why more 6 year olds recognize Joe Camel than Mickey Mouse.

And never, ever underestimate the power of ubiquity. The ads are everywhere, all the time--and ubiquity buys _acceptance_. Why go against the stream? Why make trouble by objecting? Everyone else seems to accept it.

And who's this "everyone else"? Who seems to be telling a kid smoking's ok, or even cool? Major corporations like Panasonic and Kellogg's, the local mom-and-pop candy store, the supermarket, the pharmacy, the gas station, the bus company, his doctor, the entire publishing industry, his favorite sports figures, his movie idols, and even his own mother and father.

These things do not go unnoticed.

It seems nobody in the world has a problem with cigarettes except a few teachers and government bureaucrats. Then really, what's the big deal??

This acceptance--this co-option of vast segments of society into the hawking of cigarettes, and most especially this deafening silence--is what is being bought today with the industry's $6 billion-a-year gale-force blizzard of advertising and promotion.

And no once-a-month smoking education class or a few newspaper articles stands a snowball's chance in hell against it.

This document's URL is:

  • 2000 Gene Borio, Tobacco BBS (212-982-4645). WebPage: Tobacco BBS material may be reprinted in any non-commercial venue if accompanied by this credit

  • ***********************
    Go To: Tobacco BBS HomePage / Resources Page / Health Page / Documents Page / Culture Page / Activism Page
    Return to Communications from the Front