Like many people my age, I grew up on a diet of television that was definitely far scarier than I should have been watching at age, oh, 11. Are You Afraid of the Dark? Goosebumps. Courage the Cowardly Dog.
But the most terrifying things on TV, by far, were the anti-smoking ads in between shows.
Imagine the withered lungs of a smoker gasping on your television. Or what happens to blood when tobacco is inhaled. Or a more metaphorical horror — like a fish hook looped through a cheek, or a small demonic man yanking at a mouth. Whatever approach the ad took, it was bound to be deeply and weirdly and uniquely horrifying, and I could never jump to the remote to turn it off in time.
There is ample evidence that scaring the daylight out of children and preteens (and adults) in this manner works. For one, I've never tried a cigarette. For another, the medical journal The Lancet discovered that a 2013 ad by the CDC might have ultimately caused some 100,000 Americans to give up smoking permanently.
But setting aside the public good that comes from discouraging tobacco use, anti-smoking ads are all kinds of messed up. Sometime around 1997, when Rachael Leigh Cook famously destroyed a kitchen in the nightmare fodder that was "This is Your Brain on Drugs," a particularly effective aesthetic for public health announcements took off. Anti-smoking advertisements began to take cues from horror films, using unnatural or murky lighting, distorted sounds, and jarring or disgusting images to make a lasting impression, particularly on young viewers. Being one once myself, I can attest that whenever such an advert would come on after a cereal or Lego commercial, you couldn't help but stop, pay attention to the TV, and, disoriented, wonder, what is this…?
The most familiar class of ads are the ones in which former smokers show and discuss the horrible things tobacco has done to their bodies. These ads are the kind that tend to feature people with browned teeth, holes in their necks, or amputations. While these, like the CDC's campaign, tend to be effective for adults, different strategies are used to catch the attention of younger audiences, resulting in a queasy mix of serious messages delivered with the trappings of a children's show or movie.
Part of what makes children's and preteens' ads so unnerving is the explicit threat of what is assured to be certain death if you light a cigarette. Since most children's TV shows and movies steer clear of discussing or depicting death beyond the abstract, it is petrifying to suddenly be confronted, as an 11-year-old, with your television telling you that you will die — all in the whimsical packaging of a children's commercial. Consider, for example, one cartoon PSA out of Maryland that ends with a young girl screaming as she is dragged down by skeletons:
The most frightening ads, though, were reserved for preteens. These ads tended to come on later in the evening, when younger siblings had already been shuttled off to bed. Something about that atmosphere — being alone in a dark living room, in the flickering TV twilight after your parents have gone to bed, and having the regular slew of commercials interrupted by a girl peeling her skin off to pay for a pack of cigarettes — is a uniquely terrifying experience. That weird limbo of half-sleep is what makes scripted horror sketches, like "Unedited Footage of a Bear," so spot-on — only, anti-smoking commercials fell into that uncanniness unintentionally.
Ad writers at the time understood that their audience was just getting rebellious enough to ignore teachers' or parents' warnings, so instead of a message of "smoking is bad," they experimented with other ways of influencing youth. The worst examples of this were ads trying to impress upon teens that smoking isn't cool; usually these just ended up being funny.
The best, or at least most memorable, PSAs resorted to gross and nightmarish images. It isn't even clear, exactly, what smoking does to you from these ads or why it's bad. Instead, the videos abandon all intention of getting across some sort of "message" and rely entirely on distorted sound and lighting to replicate the atmosphere of a horror film (the creepy dolls also help):
As addiction has evolved, so too have the ads. Today, with smoking down among teens, vaping is the threat targeted by public health agencies. Although the ads in 2017 and 2018 don't have quite the same David Cronenberg-esque flavor as their predecessors, they are products of the same philosophy of terrifying children after their parents have gone to bed. The vape-mouthed teens in the ad below are definitely like some sort of monsters out of Black Mirror.
Some researchers have argued that the scare tactics used in anti-smoking campaigns cause unnecessary distress, to which I say: well, yes, probably. But I have to admit, there is something satisfying about the fact that younger generations are still being traumatized by nicotine commercials on the CW or TeenNick. It's like a rite of passage, even: If I can't unsee this, neither should you.
But here's some advice, from one (former) preteen to another: Keep the remote control close and remember you can always leave the light on.