David Behrens: Harnessing power of adverts would better serve our health

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IT IS 60 years this week since they established that smoking was linked to lung cancer, and 10 years since it was banned in public places. So it’s surprising that so many people are still doing it.

Official figures tell us that smoking among young people, those aged 18-24, is on the decline. One in four used to take it up; now it’s one in five. I must frequent the wrong places because the number looks much higher to me.

In theory, it’s harder than ever for teenagers to get hooked. Cigarettes are no longer advertised, nor are they above the counter in supermarkets. But the same is true of cocaine, and nothing seems to have prevented the trade in that. The only difference is the extent to which people are prepared to be seen using it.

Attitudes to smoking have changed enormously during the last generation. I still remember turning up to work in the 1980s to find a notice at reception advising that cigarettes could no longer be consumed in the building, except in designated areas. I didn’t smoke, yet it seemed a cultural shift as profound as banning talking, or tea drinking, which I did do. Looking back, I shudder at the smoke from other people’s ashtrays that I must have inhaled, though at the time, like most other office dwellers, I didn’t give it a second thought.

In fact, I must have started inhaling early. My father went through phases of puffing on a pipe and smoking those slim Manikin cigars that came in cartons of five. Each cigar was 
encased in Cellophane and took, as I recall, almost as long to unwrap as to smoke.

Manikins were popular in the 1950s and 1960s with people like my dad, who wore suits, ties and trilbies. In the Seventies they tried to target a younger generation of smoker, by filming the sultry actress Caroline Munro in a bikini, hacking her way through a tobacco plantation, for an advert on ITV. But the excitement must have been too much, because the Manikin generation died out not long after, 
like a pipe left too long on the arm of a sofa.

Oddly, though, Ms Munro may yet hold the key to discouraging the young adults of today from taking up smoking. Her advert, which you can find on YouTube if you insist, is a classic example of product association, an approach long beloved of marketing types, in which viewers are supposed to absorb the imagery and, on some level, identify with it.

It’s a subtle, soft sell and not to be taken literally. We know we are never really going to take a machete to a tobacco plant, let alone have Caroline Munro unwrap us a cigar, but we somehow buy into the concept because it validates our own lifestyle, or one to which we might aspire.

It is how cigarette advertising also worked, until they stopped it. One of the last poster campaigns showed builders relaxing during a smoke break on the roof of a half-finished house.

Under a clear blue sky, they chummily passed around the Kensitas. They had clean shirts and faces because they were not real builders, but they radiated companionship and warmth – which was the lifestyle choice they were selling.

It’s a technique that successive governments and health organisations, in their attempts to make people give up smoking, have failed to harness. Negative association is just as powerful as positive imagery, maybe more so, but quit campaigns have focused instead on the health consequences, which are well known and which committed smokers choose to ignore.

Imagine if they had commissioned instead an advert in which the models were obese and clad in jogging bottoms spattered with Artex – pit bulls at their feet and electronic tags on their ankles. You would very quickly stop smoking in public if you thought that was how others saw you.

I can see why this has never happened: charities don’t want to be accused of stigmatising a section of society, even if for the greater good. Yet sometimes, a cultural shift is set in motion only after a good kick.

I don’t remember whether my father gave up Manikins before they stopped making them or because of it. I do know that Caroline Munro became a hostess on the TV show 3-2-1, on which I worked briefly, and I got him tickets for the studio audience.

The connection didn’t occur to me at the time but I do hope it wasn’t lost on him.