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This Swedish billboard coughs when smokers walk past it

A Swedish ad agency has come up with a memorable way to get a message to smokers.

Åkestam Holst created a digital billboard equipped with a smoke detector. If the billboard has smoke waft past it, the handsome man pictured within coughs.

The billboard was placed in the middle of Stockholm, in a location where smokers commonly congregate. Part of a campaign for Swedish pharmacy Apoteket Hjärtat, the goal is to get people to quit smoking this year.

As well as coughing, the man in the billboard says, “We’re the Swedish Pharmacy Hjärtat. Our mission is to help you live a longer and healthier life. That’s why I’m here! To help you get new, healthier habits just in time for the New Year.”

The accompanying promo video shows a variety of reactions. One man notices the billboard before defiantly taking another puff. Another woman points out to her companion as if to say, “Yes that billboard is coughing because you are a stinky smoker”, then they enjoy a good chuckle.

Perhaps importantly, not one person tosses away their cigarette in disgust.

After a few seconds, the billboard displays some products such as nicotine patches, which are designed to help people kick the habit.

It looks like Sweden doesn’t much help in that regard, though. A 2012 report found that Sweden had the lowest percentage of smokers in the EU, at just 13 per cent of the population aged 15 or over.

Adweek was critical of the billboard calling it “judgemental” and “passive aggressive”. The ad industry publication also noted that smokers know their habit isn’t healthy and they still do it anyway, so nagging them via billboard might not be the best way to communicate.

Of course, there is the question of second-hand smoke. But in Sweden – as in Australia – smoking is already banned in bars and restaurants. So you are restricted to either smoking in a large, open area or your own home.

Aside from being slightly patronising, the campaign may also be misdirected.

As mentioned, Sweden has very low rates of smoking – and with good reason. A chewing tobacco called snus is very popular there and it is the only place in the EU in which it is still legal.


Sweden: home of meatballs, IKEA and…snus

Snus isn’t smoked and doesn’t cause lung cancer, but it has been linked to oral cancer and may be correlated with heart failure. Swedish Match, a major manufacturer of snus, denies that it is a health risk, and others feel that snus, like e-cigarettes, is a ‘lesser evil’ and should be promoted over smoking.

Knowing what we know about tobacco, there is a good chance that snus is bad for you. So why not a billboard of someone chewing the stuff and then spitting it out every time a Swede walks by?

And if we are really gonna get serious about nagging the public, how about a billboard that does jumping jacks when it senses an overweight person?

At the end of the day, people usually don’t respond well when told directly what to do, especially when it’s companies doing the telling.

And while a spokesperson from Åkestam Holst told CNET that the campaign has garnered a “mostly positive” response, it’s hard to see how shaming smokers into quitting will actually work.

“Honey, listen. As you know, I’ve been smoking for 20 years. I didn’t quit when we had kids, and I still smoke even though I have a terrible cough. Well today I saw a billboard and I’ve decided enough is enough,” said no smoker ever.

About the author

Stefan is an Adelaide-based freelance writer. In his spare time, he plays tennis badly, collects vinyl and brushes up on his Mandarin. Follow Stefan on Twitter

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