Why This Silly Cat Video Could Help Curb Youth Smoking

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There were some memorable moments during last week’s Grammy awards — the triumphant live performance of a song from Hamilton, the David Bowie tribute by Lady Gaga, and Kendrick Lamar’s politically infused act, to name a few. But one unexpected showstopper was buzzing along with artists’ names the day after, and it involved cats.

“#CATmageddon” was a 30-second spot about the time-wasting joy of internet cat videos. Splicing scenes of viral cats doing everything from riding a Roomba to stumbling around in a pirate costume, the ad’s message was severely splashed across the screen: “Fact: Cats are twice as likely to get cancer if their owner smokes. Smoking = no cats = no cat videos. That sucks.”

The video, produced by the Truth Initiative — a national anti-smoking campaign funded by a 1999 Big Tobacco court settlement — is catchy, quirky, and shareable (“The cat apocalypse is upon us — and it’s smokers’ faults!”). But it’s also a public-health ad, and given how often public-health awareness-raising campaigns fail to accomplish anything, it’s worth asking: Is this ad likely to work?

Dr. Sherry Emery, director of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Health Media Collaboratory, said there’s good reason to think this ad could have an impact. According to Emery, there have traditionally been four genres of anti-smoking ads: those focusing on social stigma, or the ways smoking banishes you from your clique and family; on cessation (simply urging users to quit); on secondhand-smoking effects, which considers the people who might be inhaling the smoke around the smoker; and what Emery ranks as the most successful one, health effects, which sometimes graphically illustrates how smoking can cause wrinkles, hairy tongues, black lungs, and other lovely side effects.

For young people, though, those messages might not cut it, which is worrisome given that while youth cigarette use has nose-dived, hookah and e-cigarette use has tripled within just one year. And traditional smoking remains a persistent issue, particularly among young women, who engage in much too much “light” smoking. “The reality is that [the health effects of smoking are] a remote thought for” teens, Emery said. Especially when you factor in media images of celebrities casually dangling a cig from their lips and epitomizing cool, it’s hard for anti-smoking campaigns to preach their message without seeming eye-rollingly lame.

But according to Emery, the cat videos might offer a route toward appealing to shortsighted teens by tying their behavior into their immediate time frame. “Everyone cares about their cat,” she says, pointing out that cats live for about 15 years; the ad’s argument that smoking shortens a cat’s life and causes cancer is within the time frame of a person’s teenage years.

Emery emphasized that we can’t know for sure whether ads like the Truth Initiative’s actually work — that’s the focus of future studies. But there’s a general lesson to take from the seemingly simple, silly “#CATmageddon” ad: Public-health campaigns seem to work best when they press people’s immediate, personal buttons, when they tie directly into people’s values and relationships and lives. For older people that might be a partner or kids. For teens it just might be their pet cat.