Taking On the Tobacco Giants

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Bill Novelli has peddled soap, advertised pet food, and even promoted a presidential election campaign. He’s now involved in the toughest marketing job of his career—keeping kids away from cigarettes.

By Susan Lonkevich


In his first job out of college, Bill Novelli, C’63, ASC’64, drove around upstate New York in a station wagon full of laundry detergent — a fading brand called Rinso. Dressed in a salesman suit with soap powder collecting in his cuffs, he was forced to answer to the name of the product he peddled. “Hey Rinso! Come over here!” supermarket managers would shout to him across their aisles. And he would go to them with his wares. “That,” he laughs, “is how I learned about life.” More than 30 years later, Novelli is using his well-honed sales, marketing, and communication skills not to promote a commercial product but to try to keep it out of the hands of its youngest consumers. That enduring product — the target of attempted legislation, numerous lawsuits, and intense negotiations over the last three years — is tobacco.
   As president of the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids (CTFK), Novelli presents the fight to reduce youth smoking in America today as no less than a moral battle with clear-cut villains winding their tentacles throughout American culture. The “evidence” is on display at his organization’s offices, where a colorful mural of a kid enchained by the smoking habit greets visitors coming off the elevator and a wall in one conference room is covered with an enticing array of tobacco merchandise. The tobacco industry, he charges, has “deliberately used scientific knowledge to seduce children into beginning to smoke, and then to continue to do so into adulthood through addiction,” leading to more than 400,000 deaths a year. “This is an enormously wealthy industry,” adds Novelli, “that protects its interest through effective lobbying and political influence, through aggressive legal actions, with beguiling public-relations programs, and with over five billion dollars a year in marketing spending. I think there is no other way to say it. This is an immoral industry.”

 The public-health stakes are enormous, says Novelli, a former pipe smoker who helped found CTFK in 1995. Youth smoking has reached a 19-year high, according to statistics used by his organization. “Smoking among kids is increasing among boys and girls, of all races and ethnicities, and we’ve now reached the point where 3,300 kids become regular smokers every day of the week,” he says. “That’s over 1,200,000 new kids smokers a year.” And according to the Campaign, nearly 90 percent of adult smokers began their habit by age 18.
   Working with an $11 million budget, CTFK bases its campaign on a three-part action plan to create “a social, political, legal, media, economic, and ethical environment conducive to reducing tobacco use and exposure among kids”; fight for public policies that help reduce youth smoking; and widen and strengthen the support base for its mission.
   The Campaign and its allies — groups as diverse as the American Medical Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Hispanic Radio Network — have experienced mixed success during the past seven months of the tobacco war. In November, attorneys general for eight states reached a multi-billion dollar settlement of their Medicaid lawsuits against tobacco companies. The companies have to pay $206 billion to 46 states and Washington, D.C., over the next 25 years and fund a national foundation to aim counteradvertising at teen smokers. In return, the states have agreed not to sue them. The settlement also bans cartoon characters from cigarette ads, outdoor billboards, and promotional gifts.
   But the terms have disappointed many public-health advocates, and an editorial in The New York Times dismissed them as “fig leaves for a plan that would have very little impact on tobacco use.” Novelli says the new settlement “has some good things in it in terms of tobacco-control measures, [but] even there it’s not the whole egg.”
   Unlike an earlier settlement, which needed congressional support, this new agreement does not hold tobacco companies accountable for slashing teen smoking by a certain deadline, nor does it allow for federal nicotine regulation. A tobacco bill proposed by U.S. Senator John McCain, which also would have levied a $1.10-per-pack tax on cigarettes and placed further restrictions on tobacco ads, was scuttled in the U.S. Senate last June after an industry- sponsored media blitz.
   Other battles have been waged recently: A Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the FDA’s jurisdiction over tobacco — a case that will be appealed to a higher court. A hotly-debated California ballot measure narrowly passed in November, raising the state tax on cigarettes by 50 cents a pack. And President Clinton vowed to push the new Congress to consider bipartisan tobacco-control legislation that would build upon the states’ settlement. With each victory and defeat recorded on its information-rich Web site , Novelli and the Campaign doggedly continue building coalitions, creating surveys, and otherwise keeping tobacco-control in the public eye. “We’ve got to change the way that tobacco is seen in America,” he insists.

“CTFK has become an influential voice in the debate over tobacco-related health policy in the U.S.,” says Dr. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the dean of the Annenberg School for Communication and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, which has studied tobacco advertising. Novelli, who addressed the Annenberg School’s graduating class last May “is a master communicator,” adds Jamieson.
   “There is no question that Bill Novelli is the ideal CEO of that enterprise,” observes John Seffrin, CEO of the American Cancer Society, which helped found the Campaign three years ago and is one of the 130 members in its growing coalition. “He is a man of great vision, indefatigable energy, and passion for the cause of protecting kids from tobacco. Obviously he’s a good manager, but perhaps most important of all, he is a team builder and a person who keeps his eye on the target, which is to finally get our communities across America and our federal government to develop responsible public policy with respect to tobacco control which will protect children and youth.”
   The tobacco companies have in their favor an enormous marketing budget and, in Novelli’s words, “an addictive product.” Novelli has a big gun of his own, however — the American clergy. In early November, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids sponsored a two-day, interfaith meeting in Washington, D.C., with religious leaders from around the country to involve churches in tobacco-control advocacy and education. “There are no organizations in America as equipped as yours to deal with the ethics and provide the mobilization, the grass-roots organizing, and the adult and youth leadership that are so badly needed to win the war against tobacco,” Novelli told the group, which included a Catholic nun who had nursed emphysema patients and a leader of an international coalition of Christian schools.
   The conference began with a prayer, but soon got down to the secular business of constructing a smoking-prevention curriculum. Dr. Steve Sussmen, an associate professor in the Institute for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Research at the University of Southern California School of Medicine in Los Angeles, said educators should not spend too much time training kids to resist peer pressure. Instead they need to deglorify cigarettes and correct the perception that everyone smokes. Helpful assignments might include interviewing an adult who uses tobacco. “Since 90 percent of adult smokers want to quit,” he said, “the student will realize that this person is trapped.”
   Novelli says he hopes to enlarge the tobacco-control movement by building partnerships not only with religious groups, but with labor groups (including tobacco-growers who would like help moving into other occupations), and eventually, with corporations. Novelli has not been successful in convincing his own peers in advertising to refuse tobacco accounts even though a CTFK survey has shown that 85 percent of the kids who smoke, smoke one of the three most heavily-advertised brands (Marlboro, Newport, and Camel).
    In another study the Campaign found that most ad agency executives do believe tobacco marketing influences kids to smoke, but few are willing to publicly state this, Novelli says. “They say, ‘We don’t condone youth smoking, or even cigarettes — just the right to advertise them. This is a free speech issue.’ But what you have to ask yourself is where’s the social responsibility in that?”Back at his office, Novelli flips through a collection of cigarette ads, pointing out the popular western imagery of Marlboro, pictures of happy couples smoking Newports and enjoying “successful human relations,” and even the “sophomoric” humor of Kool’s “Mighty Tasty” ads — often featuring a scantily-clad young woman draped over a man perhaps three times her age — which he says, admittedly mystified, appeals to some young male smokers.
   In general, businesses haven’t cooperated with tobacco-control efforts, says Novelli, because they view it as corporate-bashing and believe that if one industry is reined in, it will be a “slippery slope” towards restrictions for the rest of them. But Novelli points out, “There is no other American industry that when you use their products as directed, it will kill you.” Another obstacle is that “the tobacco industry has worked enormously hard to spread its tentacles out through America,” he says. “They give a lot of money to symphony orchestras, ballets, minority organizations, and they have people sitting on each other’s boards. They really are in the corporate fabric of America, and even beyond the corporate fabric, in the cultural fabric. That makes it very difficult for them to be seen as unlike the others.”

Some have accused public-health advocates of overreaching and forcing so much into the earlier Medicaid settlement that it was bound to fail. Scott Williams, a tobacco industry spokesman, says, “The public-health community [including CTFK] is responsible for the collapse of comprehensive legislation … because they didn’t put their hatred of the industry aside and find a way to move forward.” He adds, “It’s ironic that they criticized the states’ settlement now, when they praised the Minnesota settlement [and previous individual state settlements like it], when this settlement came out stronger on the public health side and in monetary terms … Nothing the industry can do satisfies the public-health critics of the industry,” Williams says. “I think an explanation ought to be made by the public-health community as to why they’ve adopted the strategy of trying to bankrupt the industry as opposed to advancing public health.” (On a positive note, adds Williams, who expressed discomfort criticizing Novelli in his alumni magazine, “He has been a credible and effective spokesperson for his organization on which we have a fundamental disagreement on things.”)
   Novelli insists it’s the tobacco companies who are to blame for having “walked away from the legislative process” and brought “their congressional allies with them.” The months before and after McCain’s bill passed out of the Senate Commerce Committee were marked by dueling ads in the mainstream media and inside-the-Beltway publications. Tobacco-sponsored groups pitched the legislation as an ominous tax-and-spend package that would expand government power. Tobacco-control advocates, in turn, tried to convince “influentials and policymakers” that rejecting the bill would be equivalent to turning their backs on kids. Reject Big Tobacco’s money — The lives of America’s kids aren’t for sale, reads the copy of one Campaign-sponsored ad, which pictures a pony-tailed girl with a cigarette poised in her hand and a funnel cloud of dollar bills swirling around the Capitol building.
   Last August the Annenberg Public Policy Center released a study by Dr. Kathleen Hall Jamieson comparing the accuracy of the advertising messages run by the industry and tobacco-control groups like the Campaign. According to her report, the $40 million spent by the five largest tobacco companies on their issue-advocacy campaign over a four-month period was more than two-and-a-half times as expensive as the “Harry and Louise” ads aimed at burying health-care reform legislation in 1993-94. Despite this outpouring of money, she concluded, “A regular consumer of news and news-like programming who believed the broadcast ads by both sides would be seriously misled by the industry ads.” In addition, she wrote, consumers “would draw from the anti-tobacco ads one mistaken inference about the typical age of daily smoking by ‘kids’ and another about the power of the bill to end the ‘lies’ and ‘killing’ attributed to the tobacco companies.” Based on available information, however, Jamieson did uphold some industry-challenged statistics used by CTFK — including the fact that 3,000 kids become regular smokers each day.

Novelli, a student government leader who once wrote for the Gazette, used to take his future wife, Frances Bickell, CW’64, on cheap dates to Annenberg’s TV lab, and played on the football and lacrosse teams at Penn, fantasized that after he graduated (earning his bachelor’s degree in English and journalism and his master’s degree in communications), he would “write for National Geographic, studying lost tribes in the Himalayas, and then become an advertising maven.” Instead, his career unfolded in a much more interesting fashion.
   After learning lessons in humility and the basics of consumer behavior during his 11 months in training as the Rinso salesman, Novelli made his way to the New York office of the package-goods marketing company Lever Brothers (Unilever). He soon rose to the rank of product manager, and Robert Druckenmiller, WG’66, had the occasion to work for him on an advertising account for another detergent, named Drive. “He was a difficult client,” recalls Druckenmiller, who worked for an ad agency that did business with Novelli’s company. “He was very demanding and he was very good.” He also remembers being impressed that while handling “one of the largest budgets possible at Lever Brothers,” Novelli was engaged in doctoral studies at New York University. “Bill has always had one foot in academia, [later lecturing at Harvard University and the University of Maryland]. He’s always kept himself in the game intellectually by reading, writing, teaching.”
   Novelli eventually moved on to the other side of marketing, joining a prominent Manhattan advertising agency. “I really liked marketing and advertising and big, corporate competitive lifestyles, and so forth,” Novelli says, “but I just wasn’t happy because I kept looking for social relevance — and you don’t find social relevance in pet foods and laundry detergents and cereals.” While riding the train home one day in 1970, Novelli happened to read a New York Times column about the Peace Corps’ search for someone to improve its marketing and recruitment. He interviewed with Jack Porter, W’55, then the Peace Corps’ director of public affairs, set aside his advertising career, and moved to Washington.
   Two years later, offered the opportunity to work on the “November Group” for former President Nixon’s reelection campaign — yes, that reelection campaign — Novelli jumped at the chance. “It was a terrific experience,” he recalls. “Of course it all turned to ashes after we had all disbanded and gone our separate ways, and the truth came out.” Novelli remembers his naiveté while sitting in a late-night strategy session with members of the Committee to Re-Elect the President in March of 1972. “The subject of the meeting turned to who do we run against. Finally the guy I was with spoke up and said, ‘Why don’t we talk about the things that we can control?'” when in fact, Nixon’s cronies had considerable experience controlling things that the average neophyte would never dream about. “They all turned and looked at us like we were from another planet.” Novelli identifies himself today as a political independent and a pragmatist, saying, “I think that ideology oftentimes gets in the way of problem-solving.”
   After he left the Nixon campaign in 1972, Novelli linked up with Porter to form their own public-relations agency (now the fourth largest in the United States), focusing on health and social interests. He also convinced Druckenmiller to move down from New York and join them, baiting him with questions like, “Aren’t you tired of writing the annual marketing plans for soap detergents?”
   Druckenmiller, now president of Porter/Novelli, says Novelli “was really the heart and soul of the company in every respect, from recruiting people to his philosophy of putting people first to articulating a direction of social marketing that was just being articulated by him and a few academicians at that period of time.” Porter/Novelli’s first major campaign, for the National High Blood Pressure Education Program, enlisted gambler Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder to help Americans calculate the odds that they had high blood pressure. Under Novelli’s leadership, the agency also took on issues such as cancer control, reproductive health, pay increases for teachers, and equity for older workers. “He is really viewed as the father of the practice of social marketing,” says Druckenmiller.
   In 1990 Novelli retired from Porter/Novelli, only to launch a second career as executive vice president of CARE, the international relief and development organization. Then in 1995, Novelli began working with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the American Medical Association, the American Cancer Society, and others to found a tobacco-control coalition to help the FDA assert its jurisdiction over tobacco and reduce youth smoking. A year later, the foundation committed up to $20 million for a five-year period to expand the project. It was renamed the National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids (publicly known as the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids).
   “I think Bill’s approach to [tobacco-control] is a typically Bill Novelli approach,” says Druckenmiller. “First, it’s a very comprehensive attack on every conceivable front, from Main Street to Wall Street to Pennsylvania Avenue. Second, he’s very strategically focused. It’s really on kids and marketing.”    Tobacco for many kids carries the forbidden allure of a grown-up pastime. Novelli acknowledges that for this reason, many adults believe that youth smoking is inevitable. Certainly, he agrees, lecturing to kids is one of the least effective things one can do. But some strategies which the Campaign promotes may work. Novelli’s favorite is something he calls “youth advocacy.” It’s the idea of “really letting kids know that the tobacco industry is manipulating them, playing them for suckers,” he explains. “Kids hate that. What better adults to turn against than these guys sitting in offices and conference rooms planning smoking campaigns?” With this in mind, the state of Florida, with money from an earlier tobacco settlement, has created TV spots such as the “Oscar Awards in Hell,” with “a tobacco guy” beating out AIDS and murder in the death category. CTFK sponsors an annual Kick Butts Day, with youth rallies held across the United States and on the Capitol Steps; recognizes young tobacco-control activists with the Youth Advocates of the Year awards; and has worked with kids on letter-writing campaigns to Hollywood actors, pleading with them not to smoke on screen. “Kids,” Novelli says, “make terrific activists.”   
IN the wake of the recent tobacco-industry settlement with the states, the Campaign continues fighting on multiple levels to prevent kids’ cigarette-use. It has been working with three U.S. senators to organize an international conference to develop a “policy blueprint” on youth smoking. Some day Novelli would like to set up campaigns in Eastern Europe and other developing regions vulnerable to the expansion of the tobacco industry. Armed with a new survey that says most Americans would like the states’ settlement money to be distributed for tobacco-control activities, CTFK is working with state coalitions to lobby for the money. And it will continue pressing Congress for tougher legislation that includes FDA oversight, curbs on second-hand smoke, additional marketing restrictions, and price-increases for cigarettes.
   “We have to build on what the attorneys general have done, build on the Clinton administration’s commitment to seek national legislation, and go from there, with this as our new floor,” Novelli says. “The [likelihood of] congressional legislation is murky right now. We’ve got to see how the new leadership turns out and see whether the representatives actually want to engage in tobacco legislation. It could be a social issue that they will go for in order to turn their image around a little bit.” At this point, he says, “It’s an unfinished symphony.”

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