Engaging Students in Tobacco Ad Analysis

A MiddleWeb Blog

What is the purpose of education? For sure we want to provide students with knowledge, skills and abilities to navigate their world and to make wise choices and decisions.

Media literacy, similarly, aims to provide our students with a lens through which they see and understand the myriad of messages they face in their lives. Every day they will encounter positive and not-so-positive messages. How will they decide what is worth paying attention to and what’s worth discarding?

One messenger who strives hard to gain student’s attention is “Big Tobacco.” With so much advertising surrounding us, it might be easy to forget that one of the most powerful and persuasive marketers is the tobacco industry. It has spent billions of dollars to get people to smoke. And it has worked.

Statistic: Every day, 1300 people die in the US from smoking related illnesses (source) that account for more than $300 billion in health care costs each year. In essence, each year the tobacco industry has to replace 480,000 deceased customers in order to keep its profits in place.

For years, tobacco companies denied their products were harmful – until the evidence proved otherwise. Along the way, people got wise. The US government sued the tobacco companies in 1998, and among the settlement provisions was a ban on ads aimed at kids, as well as restrictions for ads on billboards and inside arenas and stadiums.

Four states sued separately, receiving more than $35 billion. One of those states was Florida. With the money that the Sunshine State received, it created a youth campaign known as The Truth. The campaign basically declared “their brand is lies, our brand is truth.”


Now, many decades into the Smoking Wars, you might think that the battle is mostly won. That would be a mistake. The current political climate in Washington is more favorable toward Big Tobacco than it has been in some time. The U.S. edition of Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported in July 2017 that

“Tobacco companies have moved swiftly to strengthen their grip on Washington politics, ramping up lobbying efforts and securing significant regulatory wins in the first six months of the Trump era.” (Source)

Without question, there is still a need to educate young people about both the damaging effects of tobacco products and the predatory advertising practices of the corporations who sell those products, which may include not only cigarettes and cigars but chewing tobacco, snuff and vapor products.

Smartphone promo on convenience store window (May 2017)

Those Persuasive Techniques

Among other things, tobacco ads try to sell a lifestyle that communicates smoking as being cool, hip, sexy – something that bold, and even beautiful, people do. With the Virginia Slims brand (and advertising) it also tried to say that if you smoke, you’ll stay thin.

Another brand, KOOL, has sponsored jazz festivals and even featured people in musical settings in its ads. All of this was designed to make the audience want to smoke and to want to be part of the in-crowd. Over time, ad campaigns have targeted every major cultural, racial and gender-related group in America.

Fifteen years ago, when media literacy education was gaining momentum, several excellent anti-tobacco, critical thinking curricula were developed. MediaSharp, Smoke Screeners, and Scene Smoking are just three that were supported by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Many states’ health education standards include references to analyzing the advertising and marketing practices of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.

I used several of these curricula at the time. Soon after, I developed my own media literacy activity.

Growing a healthy skepticism

Young people are exposed to many harmful messages and tobacco is one of them. So I decided to help students become more healthy skeptics by conducting this media literacy activity. [See my complete tobacco ad lesson plan here.] First, I would instruct them on how to analyze and deconstruct messages in the tobacco ads found in magazines targeting them.

At the time, that included titles such as Sports Illustrated, People and Rolling Stone, just to name a few. (Interestingly today, very few of those ads can be found in the same magazines).

In my contemporary workshop, students working in groups receive a full page advertisement for a tobacco product and are provided some guiding questions.

Above: one of the slides in my Tobacco Ad Analysis exercise.

Next, students share their observations about the setting, the people, the colors, the slogans and more. They are then given manipulatives to alter the message by cutting up the ad and recreating it.

In the photo above, students share their original ad with the one they have manipulated. (Photo by Frank Baker) 

Along the way, students put their own spin in their anti-tobacco ads. In their recreated ads, they bring their prior knowledge about the dangers of smoking into their artwork.

[Note: Adflip is a large, searchable database of past and current ads; also you can locate more anti-tobacco ad examples here]

Cigarettes and the Movies

Since 2001 University of California Professor Stanton Glantz has been trying to get films that portray people smoking slapped with an “R” rating. (With a “restricted” rating, more young people would be prohibited from seeing these films, and perhaps be influenced by smoking.)

Glantz’s Smoke Free Movies project has been collecting data on how many movies annually portray smoking and he regularly publishes full page ads in trade publications taking the movie studios to task.  Here’s an excerpt from one of those ads with data about Oscar-listed movies in 2017.


Although it’s not been proven, it’s been alleged that the film studios are paid by tobacco companies to have their brands featured in film, a process known as “product placement.” Studies have shown that young people are more likely to start smoking after seeing their role models smoking on the big screen.

Dr. Glantz told the New York Times (7/17/17) that “The evidence shows it’s the largest single stimulus (for smoking)…it overpowers good parental role modeling, it’s more powerful than peer influence or even cigarette advertising.” And, as the group Truth Initiative notes, “young people now have more access to these images through extended movie distribution channels such as DVDs, television and online.”

 Actors Leonardo DiCaprio (left) and Scarlett Johansen (right), shown smoking on screen.

Years ago, attending a movie theatre in Florida one weekend, I watched what I thought was an actual movie trailer, only to slowly realize that it was part of the state’s Truth campaign – the wide-reaching effort to reach young people where they frequent.

Powerful messages like this have made a difference, but they are intermittent at best and no substitute for ongoing school-based media literacy programs committed to protecting student health.

Implications for the Middle Grades Classroom

We know that young people are easily influenced, and smoking today may seem as cool to them as it did to their grandparents when actor James Dean did it on screen.

Health educators already know that teaching about advertising influences and the dangers of smoking is part of the curriculum. Each year, Kick Butts Day is designed to engage students in tobacco awareness, and many schools even take advantage of Red Ribbon Week to educate students about the health effects of smoking.

An article from Kick Butts Day and Tobacco Free Kids

Media literacy educators also have a role to play in the areas of advertising and marketing.

Ideas For Consideration

► Involve your students in learning more about the history of tobacco advertising. Have them examine display advertising from the 30s through the 50s when magazines were a primary source of news and entertaining (a Google Image search will produce a bonanza of examples, including doctor and dentist endorsements from the era). In the early years of television, cigarette advertising was a mainstay of many popular shows (“The Lucky Strike Hit Parade”) prior to the 1970 federal ban. (YouTube has lots of old ads. This ABC feature highlights some of the most shocking.)

► Task your students with researching the number of current movies that portray smoking. Are they surprised at the numbers? Ask them to brainstorm who benefits when movies portray smoking.

► Students could debate the question: should Hollywood film studios be allowed to show people smoking on screen? Why or why not?

► Locate a map indicating your school’s location and the neighborhoods around it. Draw a circle that represents a 10 mile radius with the school at the center. Assign students to make note of where they see tobacco ads as they travel to and from school. Have them take photos of these ads and place the ads on the map. (For example, Newport cigarettes are known to target African American neighborhoods. Did your students find this to be the case?) Have them calculate how many ads are in the radius and which brands appear to be more prevalent.

► Convenience, pharmacy and alcohol stores as well as gasoline stations are a few of the places where tobacco is frequently sold. Ask students to notice the displays at each of these places. In addition to the product inside the store, did they notice  signage visible to consumers outside the store as well?

► What other marketing strategies can students uncover that target younger audiences (and potential new smokers)? Here’s one example. In the fall of 2016, the Wall Street Journal reported:

“Workers for Newport, the nation’s No. 2 cigarette brand, spent the summer handing out coupons for cigarettes at a price of $1-a-pack. That is five cents a smoke.” ….

“The vouchers – distributed at concerts, bars and convenience stores – have been part of an aggressive push by Newport-owner Reynolds American Inc., to target young adult smokers and boost Newport sales.” ….

“Two 18-wheelers have taken Newport ‘lounges’ to events popular with 21- to 30-year olds such as Las Vegas’ Electric Daisy Carnival, an electronic music festival for 400,000 people, and Rock on the Range, a Columbus, Ohio, music festival featuring Megadeth and Rob Zombie.” (Source)

Engaging students in a media literacy/tobacco advertising awareness exercise is another way to demonstrate that we want to help young people become better aware of advertising’s influence and to guide them in making wise and better choices and decisions.

Recommended resources:

The CDC Fact Sheet on Economic Trends in Tobacco

The Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids

Critical Viewing Tobacco Ads Online Exercise

Blowing Smoke Curriculum

Trailer for the Scene Smoking documentary

History of Tobacco Advertising

Youth & Tobacco Use (CDC)

“We Quit Tobacco” – CVS Health  (In 2014, CVS pharmacies stopped selling tobacco products. Students can learn more about the impact of this decision here.)


Frank Baker includes visual literacy analysis activities in all his media literacy workshops. Visual literacy is also a big part of his 2016 book, Media Literacy in the K-12 Classroom (ISTE). Visit Frank’s gateway website, Close Reading The Media to learn more.

Frank’s new book Close Reading the Media: Literacy Lessons and Activities for Every Month of the School Year (December 2017) can help teach middle school students to become savvy consumers of the TV, print, and online media bombarding them every day. Pre-buy this timely book copublished by Routledge and MiddleWeb and use discount code MWEB1 for 20% off the cover price.

Frank Baker

Frank W. Baker helps educators identify ways to engage students with media literacy and critical thinking. His newest book, Close Reading the Media, is published by Routledge/MIddleWeb. He shares many resources at The Media Literacy Clearinghouse website and tweets @fbaker. Prior to beginning this blog, Frank contributed more than than three dozen media literacy articles to MiddleWeb.

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