John Wirtz headshot

Assistant professor John G. Wirtz appeared as a guest Thursday on the radio program “The 21st” in a segment about court-ordered corrective advertisements tobacco companies have recently begun airing on ABC, NBC and CBS. One striking characteristic of the ads is that they feature only words scrolling across a blank screen while an unseen female narrator reads the text in a monotone voice.

Wirtz, whose research focuses on mass media health campaigns, was asked why tobacco companies would produce that type of ad.

“The tobacco companies aren’t not stupid,” Wirtz said. “They understand marketing and advertising, so they know they have created ads that will be easy to ignore. At the same time, they can say they have complied with the court order requiring them to runs ads that correct false statements they made in the past. It’s kind of like someone who pays their taxes using a wheelbarrow full of pennies. Yes, the tax bill gets paid, but it gets paid in a passive-aggressive and petty manner.”

As part of the settlement of the United States v. Philip Morris USA lawsuit, tobacco companies Altria, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, Lorillard, and Philip Morris USA were ordered to run ads acknowledging and correcting past false statements in their marketing materials and public testimony. For example, the tobacco companies are required to acknowledge that nicotine is addictive and that they designed cigarettes to make smokers addicted to nicotine. They also must correct false claims, such as that “low tar” and “light” cigarettes are “safer” and “healthier” than other cigarettes, and state that all cigarettes are harmful and cause cancer.

WIrtz was then asked whether the ads would have any positive effect given the way they were produced.

“I doubt that the ads will provide any new information to the public about the dangers of smoking,” Wirtz said. “But the ads should have at least some small positive effect, as they will remind people that nicotine is addictive and that there’s no such thing as a safe cigarette. But just as importantly, the ads underscore the fact that tobacco companies knowingly and repeatedly lied about the dangers of smoking for years and years.

“What’s ironic is that the tobacco companies may have overplayed their hand,” Wirtz said. “Because the production value of the ads is so low and the final product is so bizarre, the ads have generated a lot of media attention. Would we be on the radio right now talking about this topic if the ads were ‘normal’? Probably not.”