So, what’s is my beef with an award-winning ad that has been called “the best anti-smoking ad ever” by industry insiders? We are constantly bombarded with media designed to manipulate our emotions and create false beliefs and convictions. It works magnificently. Usually it’s used for ulterior purposes (famously to convince most Americans that Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks in order to justify war, or that global warming isn’t happening or isn’t important in order to allow Big Oil to keep on keeping on), but it can also be used to promulgate positive messages or feel-good fluff suitable for facebook likes. Even when such manipulation is used for good, I resent any attempt to delude me or compromise my grip on reality. A recent highly successful anti-smoking ad from Thailand (where I happen to live) is a perfect example. See below, and don’t worry, there are English subtitles.

So what’s my problem with this utterly wholesome video? I suppose somewhere in me there’s a thwarted sociologist or philosopher who wants to get at the truth with tooth and claw if necessary, and doesn’t want to settle for a bright, shiny, candy coating.

The truth is indifferent to the seeker of truth, some famous philosopher once said. I’m going to say it was Nietzche, but it could have been another Existentialist (Googling it turned up shit, and my books are in America). You’ve gotta’ want to know the truth whether you will like what you find or not. How can you steer your car correctly if you can’t see the road clearly, and how can you navigate your life correctly if you can’t gauge reality accurately? On the other hand, if Scientologists can function successfully in society while believing in an intervening alien presence, than perhaps there’s no need to see things as they really are… Still, another philosopher argued: “The un-examined life is not worth living”. You’re right. That was Socrates. And “examining” must presuppose looking directly at something, and not just accepting what it says on the label. Thus, some of us (and sometimes including me) would prefer to see things clearly, if we dare, and thus a sugar coating isn’t desirable… which brings me back to the video. It’s for a good cause and chock full of wholesome goodness, but something told me it wasn’t as true as it seemed to be.

In the commercial children approach adults and ask them for cigarettes or for a light. Invariably (this is important) all the adults give them concerned lectures about the dangers of smoking. The children then hand the adults a piece of paper and walk away.

The note that the kids gave to the smokers (Hey, I could read the first two lines of Thai, though there are a few words I didn’t know).

This is where the emotional climax occurs. Upon receiving the notes from the children, the adults inspect them and are visibly moved. They look at the children walking away as if dazzled by their wisdom-beyond-their-years. After carefully absorbing the message, they all tuck the note away so they can call the hotline. What pathos! I felt a swelling in my heart. But then a scowl began to furrow my brow.

The guerrilla documentary style sidelines skepticism about whether anyone would believe that this little girl actually wants to smoke a cigarette herself. Apparently, this lady fell for it hook, line, and sinker. Here she warns the girl of the deleterious effects of smoking on aging.

I caught on to a thing or two, and then I started analyzing the commercial and finding problems.

  • First off: the two kids are actors. Were it not for the slow and soft piano music, this could work as a prank. However you slice it, the adults are being duped.
  • Nobody catches on that it’s a ruse.
  • Nobody laughs, and this footage was shot in Thailand. Thais’ first reaction to an unusual or uncomfortable situation is often to laugh. But not here.
  • Every adult reacts the same way: first giving a little lecture, then following the child with their eyes after getting the note, then tucking it away. Any other response by any other adult isn’t included in the video. We are given the impression all adults reacted identically, but this could easily be manipulated by only including certain reactions.
  • All of the adults accept the notes, believe they are form the children, and continue to act as if they are from the children even after reading the message which clearly comes from an institution (it has a hotline number), in which case they should have realized the kids were just handing out pamphlets. None had a “you got me” reaction.
  • I did some research. The adults are actors, too. OK, it was purportedly originally shot with actual members of the public in Bangkok, but was reenacted “for privacy reasons”. Really? Are Thai regulations about filming in public more strict than in the West? Even if one accepts this, it’s hard to believe there weren’t any embellishments, such as to make all of the smoker’s reactions more uniform and thus more poignant.

The whole thing is staged. Orchestrated. Contrived. Maybe the adults didn’t feel duped in the video, but I feel duped by it. The reason anyone’s heartstrings were plucked was by the spontaneous reactions of the real people in real situations. Finding out the smokers on the street were actors is like finding out the Pepsi Challenge was staged (which probably wouldn’t surprise anyone). If it weren’t a real member of the public choosing Pepsi over Coke in a blind taste test, it would be completely meaningless.

Would the Pepsi Challenge have any credibility at all if those taking the test were actors?

The ad succeeds extremely well in hammering home the idea that adults know unequivocally that smoking is bad for them, but ignore the risks in a way they wouldn’t when faced with the prospect of a child smoking. That hypocrisy is obvious enough, and isn’t news to anyone. But the sociological truth the commercial presents is what truly touches us – adult smokers will unanimously feel compelled to lecture children about the dangers of smoking in order to prevent them from doing it, and will be so moved by children asking them why they smoke, that they’ll be stunned into taking a pamphlet or even throwing their cigarette out on the spot. This unveiling of deeply human traits, however, may have no real viability. There’s no mention of a study we can look at that includes a breakdown of adult smoker’s reactions.

This still from the commercial has a different meaning when one knows that all the adults filmed were actors. THAT is a bit of a tautology: all the actors saying smoking is bad are saying smoking is bad. And then, “every adult filmed” amounts to just ten people.

We don’t know what the parameters of the experiment were, or what footage was scrapped, and why. I might like to believe the attestations of the people behind the commercial – namely Ogilvy Advertising together with the Thai Health Promotion Foundation – but I’d be taking it on faith, when there’s more reason for me to be skeptical than believing.

Nopadol Srikieatikajohn of Ogilvy Avertising giving background on the ad on Al Jazeera TV. Here he talks about actors being used.

During an interview on Al Jazeera TV, Nopadol Srikieatikajohn of Ogilvy Advertising, stated that actors were used for privacy reasons, but they were very faithful to the original members of the public who were filmed. He mentions only ten people being filmed, which is hardly enough to constitute any kind of a study, especially if the desired end-result had a less-than-subtle influence on the resulting footage. My SUSPICION is that they didn’t go out in order to conduct a social experiment to discover what exactly would happen if children asked adults for cigarettes or a light, but rather to collect footage that would substantiate the preconceived conclusion that adult smokers would be swayed by the entreaties of the children. In other words, they didn’t do the type of inquiry the philosopher suggested, in which the truth is indifferent to the seeker of truth. They just manufactured evidence for an idea they liked. In legal terms we are all familiar with, they “led the witness”.  I’m confident such an outcome could easily be garnered in a half-day of filming and some more hours of video editing; and I’m not sure at all that a near opposite impression, in which the adults were indifferent or unimpressed, couldn’t be created with similar effort. There’s nothing to lead me to believe the ad reflects actual empirical, thorough, objective, or even unbiased research and experimentation.

Interestingly, there are at least two versions of the ad. One, on Youtube, is presented as the “original ad” and has many of the adult smokers faces blurred out. This certainly gives the impression that identities were being protected and real people were being used. However, some of the same people appear in the later version without the blurring. Since the creators attest they only used actors in the final version, it must be that the exact same people in the earlier blurred version were also actors. Where then are the members of the public?

The same man’s identity is blurred in the “original” version of the commercial on the top, but not in the second on the bottom. Because it has been established that he is an actor in the second, the blurred effect in the original version must have been contrived and unnecessary. Or perhaps there were never any real public participants to speak of.

A well-intended campaign which has had a decidedly positive effect in the real world. Commendable! Wunderbar! It also, however, provides an unintended lesson in not letting ourselves be swayed by emotions into believing an impression that doesn’t hold up to critical scrutiny. I no more believe the actions of the actors in this commercial are a true reflection of humanity than I believe Saddam Hussein masterminded 9/11, or that Global Warming is a hoax manufactured by climatologists to alarm the public and fatten their own bank accounts. I believe the commercial used documentary style filming techniques to create a false impression of verisimilitude in the service of giving weight to a preconceived, sappy idea, which nevertheless proved highly effective in motivating people to stop smoking. People like their syrup, sap, honey and treacle.

I’ll hold off on imbibing until I see some more concrete evidence, at which point I’ll be happy to admit the error of my ways, since it’s always better to find one had underestimated the human species than overestimated it. In the meantime we can hope to discover real humanity in authentic street footage somewhere, and not face sipping the hemlock.

4 replies on “Manipulation For Good

  1. Interesting that an advertising agency would want to suggest that smokers should act out of reasoning when advertisers spend their working lives appealing to emotions (see above). In any case, even if you put aside your points about the artifice in the ad’s construction, and the agency screened the original footage, there’s a serious flaw in the reasoning, and that’s an assumption of equivalence in agency. If we were to say that we adults shouldn’t do things that we wouldn’t normally recommend to children, then we wouldn’t vote in elections, have sex, drink alcohol, shoot guns, or take on any of the usual responsibilities we do. Adults who smoke do so on the basis that we adults consider ourselves capable of making informed and responsible choices that children aren’t capable of making. It’s easy to say that we’d be wrong, and we should look at this war or that atrocity for proof, and ha ha, very funny, but it’s not as though anyone saying this would feel more comfortable in a roomful of children with loaded guns than adults with the same. Or would they?


    1. I think you nailed it with a couple nails. One, yeah, basically the ad agency was doing what they always do, manipulating emotions to get a desired effect. And, two, adults would tell children why they shouldn’t drink coffee or wine without thinking that the reasons apply to themselves. I might tell a kid that he or she can hold off on coffee or alcohol – It’s an adult thing – while also being fully aware of it’s negative healthy effects AND having not intention of quitting myself. You’re right that there’s an issue that doesn’t fit in the implied controlled experiment, and that’s that we correctly see children as not being experienced or responsible enough to manage their own lives. We don’t want them voting or driving at 7 or 8 years old, either. In short, the ad used a gimmick, but it went viral, and I get the impression people are taking it at face value, which is what got me thinking about how we are so easily misled by the manipulation of our emotions.


  2. OH Eric. It’s an ad against smoking, not for making more money for the tobacco industry. We should be swayed by our emotions, we need to be reminded that we have emotions in a world of constant media and negativity. A lot of folks are just plain apathetic. Children can be good reminders and that is basically what the ad is about.

    They aren’t manipulating you so you can vote for candidate A, B or C. They aren’t asking you to buy a product or be more nationalistic. It’s a nice message. If they used similar tactics for global warming, you’d be thrilled if it worked because you’d want more people to understand and believe they can do something about it.


    1. I’m for the cause and at least initially liked the commercial. I like it as film-making. But it’s a fiction presenting itself as reality, and to judge by the Youtube comments most people have no idea that all the people in it are acting, when it gets it’s power from us believing those are the real responses of real people. If they said at the end, “all the people filmed were actors” I wouldn’t have a problem, and their commercial wouldn’t have been very popular at all. It’s success is completely dependent on us thinking it’s real. But, what I’m really interested in is how film/video/TV is used to shape and distort our beliefs, opinions and convictions. I just use this well-meaning commercial as an example.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s