Notorious FDA? Feds Turn To Hip-Hop To Tamp Down Teen Smoking

May 9, 2016
Originally published on May 9, 2016 12:01 pm

The federal government is getting into hip-hop — well, sort of.

For its latest anti-tobacco campaign, the Food and Drug Administration is trying to harness hip-hop sounds, style and swagger to reach black, Hispanic and other minority teens — who disproportionately suffer the consequences of smoking.

The campaign — called Fresh Empire — features videos with dancers, DJs, beat-boxers and rappers.

In one of the ads, California-based artist Jessica Williams, whose stage name is Jayy Starr, does a spoken-word piece about her grandfather's battle with lung cancer.

Williams and all the other hip-hop stars featured in the public health campaign are spreading a simple message, says the FDA's Kathy Crosby, who worked on the campaign.

"They're helping us seed the notion that you can be hip-hop and tobacco-free," she says. "We went into different communities and found these up-and-coming dancers, up-and-coming rappers, up-and-coming DJs that are really role models within their community."

The ads first aired nationally in conjunction with the BET Hip-Hop Awards last fall. The campaign has also targeted hip-hop fans at concerts and other events, like the Hot 107.9 Birthday Bash in Atlanta and SneakerCon in the San Francisco Bay Area.

But can the federal government really pull off hip-hop?

"My own impression was that it was corny and forced — and trying too hard to appeal to urban youth," says Brian Mooney, a teacher at High Tech High School in North Bergen, N.J., who often incorporates hip-hop into lesson plans.

So the response from students in his sophomore English class came as a surprise.

Sophomore Olivia Ruiz's reaction, after watching the videos: "They're cool. I mean, they got swag."

Wait, really?

"Especially the music in the background and the fashion and everything," says Amirah Johnson, another student. "It's like we're seeing ourselves on TV."

Another teen in the class, Ana Guzman, says it's nice to see people who look, walk and talk like herself and her friends.

"It's more of the things that we do, more of the things that we listen to, more of the things that we daily live by," Guzman says. She and her friends like to fool around and freestyle rap after school, just like the teens in the Fresh Empire videos.

Could it be? Has the FDA somehow transformed into The Notorious FDA?

All told, the campaign will cost $128 million, paid for by tobacco industry fees. The FDA is betting that investment will pay off, partly because the approach is based on a growing body of research showing that teens — more so than any other age group — care deeply about their social group. And to really get to teens you first have to understand how they see themselves. Are they hip-hop? Goth? Preppy? Or, maybe, something else entirely.

Meghan Moran, an assistant professor who specializes in health communication at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, led a recent study looking at health campaigns that tap into teen culture.

She recruited 250 teens, ages 13 to 15, and asked them to describe the subculture or group that fit them best. Then she had everyone look at ads that either targeted their crowd or a different group.

"We found that when youth were exposed to messages that targeted their particular subculture or crowd, they were much more likely to respond favorably to that message," Moran says.

That outcome may strike some as obvious, she says, but until recently, public health campaigns have taken a more generalized, one-size-fits-all approach.

"And now we know," she says, "that's not necessarily the most effective way to go about things."

Moran wasn't involved in the development of the FDA's campaign, but thinks it could lend much needed help in driving down rates of smoking among minority youth. Tobacco-related illnesses are the No. 1 cause of death among African-Americans — though a slightly higher percentage of white Americans smoke.

Plus, cigarette companies spend millions marketing to hip-hop fans — sponsoring concerts and buying up product placement spots in music videos, notes Dr. Pam Ling, an internist and professor at the University of California, San Francisco. Ling didn't work on the FDA's campaign, but has studied and designed other anti-tobacco campaigns aimed at young people.

"The campaign does a good job of competing with a lot of the commercial marketing we see that targets young people of color," she says.

Not all the FDA ads hit the mark. Most of Brian Mooney's New Jersey sophomores were skeptical of one that starts with a guy picking up his girlfriend in his car.

"He didn't even say 'hello' when she walked into the car," Melina Soriano points out. "He needs to say 'hello!' "

But everyone loved the spoken-word piece.

Fifteen-year-old Jahvel Pierce remembers first seeing it on the music channel MTV, during a commercial break.

"It really drew me in," he says.

The piece does go deeper than most commercials, or even PSAs, adds his classmate Ana Guzman. She had an uncle who died of lung cancer and says the campaign especially resonates with her.

"When he passed away I made a promise," she says. "I made a promise to myself and to him, not to smoke, because I don't want to give more to a company that just killed my uncle. So, that video, basically, was describing my life."

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The federal government is getting into hip-hop - all right, well, sort of. The Food and Drug Administration is trying to convince black, Hispanic and other minority teens not to smoke, and they're doing this using music. Here's NPR's Maanvi Singh.

MAANVI SINGH, BYLINE: The FDA's latest campaign features dancers, DJs, beatboxers, rappers and also just an array of incredibly attractive, fashionable, multi-ethnic young people posing while empowering music plays in the background.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

SINGH: In one of the TV ads, California-based artist Jessica Williams does a spoken-word piece about her grandfather's battle with lung cancer.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

JESSICA WILLIAMS: Pain, disease, death - cigarettes were to blame. But I overcame the block and the shock when my grandpa's lung cancer caused by cigarettes was caught.

SINGH: The campaign is a result of lots and lots of focus group testing. It's costing $128 million, paid for by fees on the tobacco industry. The FDA's Kathy Crosby, who helped develop the campaign, says Williams and all the other up-and-coming hip-hop stars featured in the campaign are spreading a simple message.

KATHY CROSBY: They are actually helping us to kind of seed the whole notion that you can be hip-hop and still be tobacco free.

SINGH: Studies show that teens, more so than any other age group, care a lot about their social groups. And to really get to teens, you first have to understand their scene or their subculture. Are they hip-hop, goth, preppy?

MEGHAN MORAN: Oh, it's so embarrassing. I was probably, like, the punk-indie subculture.

(LAUGHTER)

SINGH: Meghan Moran from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health - she's not as punk as she used to be - led a study on tapping into teen subculture.

MORAN: And we found that when youth were exposed to messages that targeted their particular subculture or crowd, they were much more likely to respond favorably to that message.

SINGH: Moran wasn't involved in the development of the FDA campaign. But she says it could be key to driving down rates of smoking among minority youth. Smoking-related illnesses are the number one cause of death in the black community, though a slightly higher percentage of white Americans smoke. Dr. Pam Ling, who specializes in health communication at the UCSF School of Medicine, agrees. She says cigarette companies spend millions marketing to hip-hop fans, buying up product placement spots in music videos and sponsoring concerts.

PAM LING: The campaign does a good job of competing with the kind of commercial marketing we see that targets young people of color.

SINGH: But can the government pull off hip-hop?

BRIAN MOONEY: My own impression of it was that it was kind of corny and forced and trying too hard to, like, appeal to urban youth.

SINGH: That's Brian Mooney, a teacher at High Tech High School in North Bergen, N.J. He often incorporates hip-hop into lesson plans. What did his students think?

OLIVIA RUIZ: They got swag, yeah. They're cool.

SINGH: Wait, really?

JAHVEL PIERCE: It kind of drawed me in, like I said, because of the spoken-word. It was, like, really impactful. Like, it really, like, drew me in.

AMIRAH JOHNSON: And especially with, like, the music in the background and the fashion and everything, I think that's, like - it's really cool.

ANA GUZMAN: That's what I'm saying. Like, I feel like I could relate more to it because it's more of the things that we do, more of the things that we listen to, more of the things that, like, we daily live by.

SINGH: Not all the videos were hits. Like this one, which starts with a guy picking up his girlfriend in a car.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hey, yo, can I ask you something?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah, what's up?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Do you smoke cigarettes?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Cigarettes? No.

MELINA SORIANO: He didn't even say hello when he walked in the car.

(LAUGHTER)

SINGH: Yeah, no. I wouldn't except that from my boyfriend either. But overall, the kids clearly related to the campaign, especially when the message hit close to home. Ana Guzman is 15. Her uncle died of lung cancer.

GUZMAN: When he passed away I made a promise, like, I made a promise to myself and to him. Like, I wouldn't smoke because I don't want to give more to a company that kind of just killed my uncle.

SINGH: Now, that's a powerful anti-smoking message. Maanvi Singh, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.