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The World's Rudest, Most Passive-Aggressive Billboard Coughs at Nearby Smokers


If anything is going to convince a smoker to quit, it's a judgmental, passive-aggressive, coughing billboard. At least, that's the ostensible premise of a new campaign from Swedish pharmacy Apoteket Hjärtat and agency Åkestam Holst.

The digital poster uses outdoor smoke detectors to identify any nearby smokers and shame them by sending the man on the screen into a hacking fit, according to a case study video promoting the ad.

It then displays a series of nicotine patches and other kick-the-habit products, because obviously, the smoker is going to be most receptive to a pitch right after having his or her moment of self-destructive indulgence interrupted by a virtual asshole.

To be fair, the campaign's heart is in the right place—sort of.

It's nice that it wants to help people be healthier. But it also clearly wants to garner attention for itself, and sell its wares—this is not a PSA. And there are a number of problems with this sort of approach.

First, most smokers these days know that smoking is bad for them, and they choose to do it anyway. Second, advertising is a generally intrusive medium to begin with. Being deliberately more intrusive—nagging adults for their unhealthy choices—doesn't do the brand any favors.

Sure, it's a bit clever. (This is the same client-agency team that made the subway ad with the model whose hair blew around whenever a train arrived.) But if the ad were a real person coughing at strangers on the street—and if its first victim's stink-eye reaction is any indication—it'd be at risk of starting a fist fight.

All oh which suggests that the campaign's actual target isn't the smokers themselves, but everybody else who thinks smokers are gross to begin with. Which might actually be a reasonable strategy.

Smoking is already banned in Swedish bars, restaurants and malls—a recent government investigation suggested the country should also prohibit lighting up at outdoor public spaces like bus stops, playgrounds, and cafes. In a country where healthcare costs are largely footed by taxpayers, it's not unreasonable to argue that an expensive, illness inducing habit should be legally hindered if not outright eliminated.

But that's not exactly the tack being taken here, or a very laissez-faire, live-and-let-live approach to the market, which leaves the whole thing feeling somewhat disingenuous—even if the people blowing smoke in the face of innocent passersby are inconsiderate, too.

In other words, when everyone is a dick, it's not really clear who comes out ahead.

Client: Pharmacy "Apoteket Hjärtat"
Agency: Åkestam Holst / Sweden
Media Agency: Clear Channel

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