Everybody knows what I’m talking about. You’re on YouTube, attempting to watch some dumb video, but before it starts, an advertisement for “truth,” the anti-tobacco campaign, plays. Within the past year or so, as brands like Juul have experienced astronomical boosts pertaining to popularity and market share in the world of electronic nicotine devices, many of truth’s advertisements have been directed at curbing the use of these products, particularly among young people. While truth’s overall aim to defend the health and physical dignity of potential smokers is noble, the tactics and illustrations that truth deploys in spreading these messages prove to be, at times, problematic.
There is one such anti-vaping ad that stands out to me. The video, lasting approximately thirty seconds, depicts two puppets, a man and woman, standing on the front porch of a house. Presumably, these two individuals have just returned from some sort of date, and the viewer gains access to the female puppet’s inner monologue. As she contemplates her male counterpart’s attractiveness, she decides that she wants to kiss him, but before they embrace, the man unleashes a long, colorful deluge of puppet vomit on her as she screams in distress, and, needless to say, the moment is over, ruined. After this sequence, letters appear over a bright orange background, proclaiming, “fact: vaping weakens your immune system.”
I think that tobacco use is an interesting topic of debate because, on one side of it, people often derive their own anti-smoking viewpoints from intensely emotional and personal convictions. It seems as though everyone knows someone or has a relative who died prematurely due to smoking-related diseases; indeed, these are the memories that fuel the existence and passion of an “anti-smoking” platform in the first place, one that shuns even a pragmatic view of nicotine use. I’d like to make it clear that in this article, I don’t intend to defend smoking or vaping. But I also don’t intend to castigate these practices, because such chastisement would merely echo the simplistic naivete of Reagan-era, zero-tolerance conceptions of substance use. It would also demonize nicotine users, who are certainly not the antagonists of this issue.
It seems as though truth branched off of a few other anti-tobacco campaigns around the late 1990s, in an era when the Master Settlement Agreement shed light on the severe malpractices of big tobacco companies as they sought to alter their products in order to make them more addictive. I remember when truth commercials were specifically targeted at big tobacco companies, and it felt productive because these corporations were rightly conceived as the villains in this situation rather than individual users. It was rage against the machine, and it seemed like the machines were losing the fight.
But, let’s return to the aforementioned anti-vaping ad, which was published on YouTube in October 2018. What message could truth possibly be trying to convey with this video? What truth is conveying to us is that real men don’t vape, don’t use nicotine and are ultimately the ones who get to kiss their dates at the end of the night. In this light, truth’s video seems absurd. I wonder if it is exploiting the worst anxieties of toxic masculinity a morally sound way of protesting something.
Interestingly, I do think that tobacco use among young men is actually a bitter symptom of toxic masculinity. The first encounters I’ve ever had with people using nicotine in amounts that exceed moderation occurred around Cornell’s fraternity houses, where a culture of peer pressure seems to have surrounded the use of cigarettes, Juuls and other tobacco products. However, I see truth’s advertisement as merely existing on the opposite side of the same, hyper-masculine coin. With “be a man and vape” versus “be a man and don’t vape,” the real problem is the assertion of some masculine standard in the first place.
What would a better video look like? If truth wanted to tap in to the link between masculinity and nicotine use, it could have done so without portraying men only in relation to heteronormative courtship. It could follow Gillette’s lead, taking care of the men it depicts and illustrating nicotine abuse as being the addictive form of self-harm that it is. Or, if truth wants to address widespread nicotine use by college students, it could criticize the rampant pre-professional, high-stress culture of college and university campuses, a lifestyle that unfortunately lends itself quite well to substance abuse as a means of escaping the fray of such a bleak existence.
It’s obvious that truth is attempting to appeal to young crowds, but I argue that protest art, or rather public campaigns that deploy art in protest of something, need to be held more accountable for their tactics, even if the ultimate aim is a positive one. Exploiting one social ill to quell another is no way to promulgate meaningful change.
Nick Swan is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Swan’s Song runs alternating Thursdays this semester.