Top Menu

Commentary: A Picture May Be Worth a Thousand Words, But Can It Also Save Hundreds of Thousands of Lives?


Do you remember when Joe Camel was once as iconic and recognizable as Mickey Mouse? Or when images of the Marlboro man lured you into the never-ending horizon? Marketers are well versed on the power an image can unleash. Think about your favorite brand and the images you associate with that brand. Without effort, you may find yourself thinking, “I want to take my SUV off-road this weekend…I love the independence…and I look great behind the wheel!” In reality, your vehicle sits in your suburban garage, used primarily for the daily grind of commuting on asphalt.

Aided by the ongoing explosion of technology and social media, the average consumer is exposed to an advertising message hundreds of times each day*. Anywhere the eye can see, it can see an ad. Even in a down economy, advertisers spent an estimated $136 billion** in the U.S. last year alone promoting their products and competing for your attention and your wallet. So how can social marketers break through all the clutter to make real change and save lives?

For organizations like Legacy®, images can be especially effective tools when they are harnessed to change social norms and prevent youth from never starting to smoke. Take the Marlboro Man, the ultimate cowboy and masculine trademark that helped establish Marlboro as the best-selling cigarette in the world, especially among teens. Legacy’s truth® campaign used this imagery to tell a different story for the infect truth® campaign in 2009. The ad opens with a man dressed as a cowboy riding a horse down a busy New York City street to meet his sidekick, who strums his guitar to get people’s attention. The Singing Cowboy removes a bandana around his neck to reveal a hole from a laryngectomy. He begins singing a song, which starts with the lines “You don’t always die from tobacco” with the help of an electro larynx (a hand-held electronic voice box). The ad was a vivid reminder that more than 8.5 million Americans live with tobacco-related illnesses. This graphic image is one that Philip Morris’s Marlboro brand will never reveal, but one that helped put the truth® campaign among the ranks of highly acclaimed and effective social marketing campaigns proven to prevent teens from smoking and ultimately save lives. The graphic images recently proposed by the Food and Drug Administration have a chance to do the same thing and break through the advertising clutter. Building a portfolio of effective images over time will greatly impact the 46 million Americans who smoke. Their lives literally hang in the balance.

Parsing out the underlying attitudes that lead toward a behavioral change is nothing short of a psychological profiling exercise. We spend the majority of our time at Legacy focused on this – understanding the consumer mindset. And while we don’t sell a traditional product the way the tobacco industry does, make no mistake, we are competing for the same market share. As the David facing a real-life Goliath, we rely heavily on consumer insights to remain competitive. While our competition dwarfs us in advertising spending, we believe that we have the upper hand. Our decisions are not guided by annual sales figures of a deadly product. Our decisions are based on saving lives.

When we base our decisions at Legacy on the needs of the consumer, our work is more effective at changing knowledge, attitudes and beliefs. We have fewer smokers in the U.S. and lives are changed as a result of our work. Not bad for an advertising gig. And yes, I do have an SUV parked safely in a garage. I still have a chance to find the off- road next weekend. In my mind, anyway.

*source: 2009 Media Dynamics Inc.

**source: 2010 Neilson Adview

Eric Asche, Chief Marketing Officer, Legacy®

7 Responses to this article

  1. Carol / November 5, 2011 at 4:05 am

    “As the David facing a real-life Goliath…” What a big, fat lie! The tobacco companies let the anti-smokers get away with scientific fraud because the anti-smoker conspirators from Wall Street took them over decades ago. And the anti-smokers’ corruption controls all the politicians, too. Anti-smoking is the religion of the one percent!

  2. steve westen / November 3, 2011 at 8:58 am

    Well Mr. Morgan… I asked for some proof and here it is… take a look at what is happening in Rhode Island

  3. Avatar of Roger Morgan
    Roger Morgan / November 1, 2011 at 3:06 pm

    This is a good ad. How about something equally as strong to help us against the marijuana legalizers. Given the two largest age groups for consumption are 18-25 and 12-17, both under the threshold of a mature brain, you could focus on brain damage (including insanity); and/or damage to fetus leading to still births, physical deformities or brain damage to the child … even the grandchildren because it is mutagenic.

    We need some help in California, Colorado, Idaho …. everywhere.

    Roger Morgan

  4. Avatar of Linda Clarke
    Linda Clarke / November 1, 2011 at 2:24 pm

    Was the ‘singing cowboy’ picture a UTube video? That would be really effective. I could not find how to enlarge the photo so I could see what the picture was really showing,

  5. Candice Besson / November 2, 2011 at 10:12 am

    Hi Linda, you can view the full PSA on the Legacy website here:

  6. Sandra / November 4, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    Marijuana is not addictive. Legalization should learn from the tobacco and alcohol industries to regulate or prohibit advertising, otherwise treat marijuana legislatively much like wine.

  7. Sandra / November 4, 2011 at 4:31 pm

    It would be difficult in most adolescent groups to increase marijuana use, short of giving it away free, or with discount coupons. Marijuana is freely available at every high school, slightly more at middle and upper class white schools, but essentially the same rate across racial and class lines across the country. Urban high schools with latino and black student bodies are where arrests for drugs occur, starting the highway to the huge American prison-industrial complex.

Leave a Reply

Please read our comment policy and guidelines before you submit a comment. Your email address will not be published. Thank you for visiting

+ seven = 10

Reproduction in whole or in part of this publication is strictly prohibited without prior consent. Photographic rights remain the property of Join Together and the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. For reproduction inquiries, please e-mail