Warning: Zombies Are Hazardous to Your Health

It’s rare that I can point to really effective social marketing campaigns, especially ones that are targeted at youth, but once again the American Legacy Foundation (known for thetruth.com and its anti-cigarette marketing efforts) has done something very creative, and likely very effective. Its latest effort involves connecting the “cancer stick” with the character that everyone loves to fear: the zombie.

Not long ago, I proposed that the sustainability community should use the ever-lovable zombie to teach people about permaculture and sustainable living skills. And while some of my colleagues wondered whether zombies had eaten my brains, Legacy must have had the idea long before me. Just last week, in cooperation with MTV, it launched The Real World: Zombieville, airing one minute mini-episodes between episodes of The Real World: New Orleans.

The first Zombieville episode makes a good point about the absurdity of the cigarette warning label. Take a look below:

Imagine if we pasted warning labels on everything dangerous. Sure, it might help absolve the guilt of mobile phone makers if we put warnings on phones that say: “Warning: Using mobile phones while driving is as dangerous as driving drunk.” But would it change people’s behavior? Probably only those who got into an accident while on their mobile—just as Dante probably won’t underestimate zombies again after almost being eaten by one.

Additional Zombieville segments touch on other key points, such as secondhand zombie attacks and zombies in movies. “Nearly 50,000 people in the U.S. die each year from secondhand smoke. Secondhand zombie attacks may not be real, but the dangers of secondhand smoke definitely are.”

Legacy did a similar thing several years ago when it ran its funny Shards O’Glass Freeze Pops ad during the 2004 Superbowl. But unlike that ad, which was a one-off purchase that cost significant bucks (Superbowl ads run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars), working with MTV has allowed Legacy to better leverage its small marketing budget. By working with a media provider to create new content, not only did Legacy probably get a good deal (in part because MTV also most likely gets a tax write-off) but the content also has a viral quality, which should help the ads spread through cyberspace.

Legacy has also added a new “Shards O’Glass” commercial that airs during The Real World episodes. But while that might reinforce the key Legacy message (that tobacco companies are manipulating you), mixing the two campaigns might be counterproductive, confusing the two messages and brands. Better to stick with one campaign at a time (or at least use the Shards O’Glass spots during a different show).

But even with that small concern, this is an exciting development. It represents an effective social marketing campaign that should have a lot of bang for its buck. Most importantly, it should hopefully expand efforts to challenge the youth demographic to see the manipulative truth behind tobacco marketing, which may in turn keep teens from smoking.

And perhaps the campaign will even have a spillover effect, expanding young people’s media literacy more broadly (for more on media literacy, click here). Because, while the cigarette is deadly, so is a diet consisting of too much soda, candy, and fast food. And so is a culture that celebrates car ownership on a planet with an already taxed climate.

Perhaps the more that teenagers watch zombies with warning labels eat people, the more they’ll realize that these absurd juxtapositions abound everywhere. Like sports stars selling soda, or a clown that sells fatty food being the spokesperson for children’s hospitals. And noticing these, perhaps they’ll rebel against the consumer culture altogether. But then again, if these teens are watching The Real World, it may be too late. Zombies may have already eaten their brains.

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