‘truth’ Offers Invaluable Insights for Parents of Teens

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Working in the field of marketing has taught me some priceless lessons about parenting kids.  The full scope of what marketing has taught me is the subject of several future blog stories but today I want to focus on the invaluable lessons I learned from an award winning campaign that dramatically changed teen behavior towards smoking in Florida: the “truth” campaign.

In 1998 I was part of a public relations agency that was awarded a multimillion account to reduce smoking among teens.  The “truth” campaign, as it was called, utilized PR, advertising, grass roots and school outreach to reduce smoking among teens.  Between 1998 and 2000 the percent of Florida middle schoolers who smoked cigarettes in the past 30 days fell from 18.5 to 8.6 percent while the percentage for high schoolers went from 27.4 to 20.9.

To this day, and especially now that my son Jonathan is on the verge of entering the “rebel” teen years, I think about how relevant “truth” is for parents.  Here’s the creative approach that “truth” employed to convince teens to “rebel” against smoking:

– Teens were educated with the full story about how adults manipulate them to do bad or unhealthy things.  The first stage of the campaign called for gathering some of the most influential teens in schools across Florida for a summit.  At the summit they saw the huge body of marketing and media work that the tobacco industry had used to popularize the notion that teens who smoked where cool.  This was a big eye opener for them.

– “truth” deliberately didn’t preach or tell teens to say “No” to smoking. Instead of resurrecting the ineffective “Just Say No” slogans of old, the “truth” campaign sought to harness teens’ natural tendency to rebel by showing them how to rebel against the big, bad tobacco industry controlled by adult executives .  Tobacco companies and tobacco executives were relentlessly targeted in TV commercials, public events and web sites as “demons” who like to poison people.

– Teens were given charge of influencing teens. In the anti-adult manipulation spirit of the campaign, teens were continuously put in charge of reaching out to and talking with their peers.   Adult were obviously involved in helping things happen but teenagers were the ones who created school-based organizations like Students Working Against Tobacco (SWAT) and they were also the ones who developed letter writing campaigns that even helped change smoking laws and ordinances throughout Florida.

A couple of parenting lessons stand out:

Be creative and stay current into what matters to your teens.  Approach the way you dialogue with them from the perspective that resonates with them.

Help your children understand how to “see through” marketing messages.  I have the advantage of being in the field but I already help my children deconstruct advertisements so they can see beyond propaganda messages, some of which are not necessarily good.

Become very familiar with the friends and icon that most influence your kids.  In this Internet age of Facebook and Twitter , peers can connect with your children easier than ever.  “truth” proved that good friends are as important as the bad ones that may be more obvious to know.

Show your kids that there is such a concept as rebelling for good.  The fact is that most teens, even the best behaved ones, are bound to rebel about something or another.  Try to get them to be excited about going on the offensive against something that’s wrong or just plain evil.

Budget cuts eliminated the state-funded version of “truth” in Florida several years ago but “truth” has been going strong nationally since 2000 when it was adopted by the American Legacy Foundation.  Here’s hoping “truth” can persevere through another decade.

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