Today, health messages conveyed through film advertising are a key part of public health education in Australia. The first and some of the most powerful of these films have been anti-tobacco advertisements. From iconic ads like “Sponge” (1979) and “Every cigarette is doing you damage” (1997) to powerful artistic pieces like the Ray Lawrence directed “Dad, you should have been there” (2004) have, through visual and audio narrative, described the harms of smoking and contributed to a profound decline in daily smoking. Australia now leads the world in tobacco control and, at just 10% of adults smoking daily, has one of the world’s lowest rates of smoking. The exhibition in the Moving Minds section of ACMI’s main gallery follows the over 50-year history of anti-tobacco filmmaking in this country from the first anti-tobacco film made in 1970 to present-day use of provocative and emotive imagery to help motivate people to quit. The exhibition therefore highlights the interwoven histories of filmmaking, advertising, and public health advocacy, which have made an indelible impact on Australian health and culture.
The exhibition guides visitors through the major ideas underpinning the multi-faceted anti-tobacco film history. Visitors will read about the first Australian-made anti-smoking film (available online) Leave it to the Chimney’s (1970), a 12-minute-long educational piece aimed at persuading school students of the health harms of smoking by juxtaposing images of ill-health against the fun of a 1960s aesthetic. This film’s focus on the health dangers of smoking employed somewhat different approaches from the first anti-tobacco television advertising campaign in 1971, which was not expected to influence smokers’ behaviour directly but, rather, to persuade policy makers to ban pro-cigarette advertising on television.
The 1971 campaign mainly relied on satire and celebrity endorsement by then-famous actors Warren Mitchell, Miriam Karlin, and Fred Parslow. Advertising creative John Bevins—later famous for creating “Sponge” (1979)—recalls that 25 of the 26 advertisements were improvised by these talented actors. As Bevins laughingly reflects, “I wrote some scripts and ideas, but Warren and Miriam took a look at them and then threw them out!” (Bevins interview 2023). The ads they created riffed on tropes popularised by tobacco ads at the time, undermining the idea that cigarettes were classy, cool, and sophisticated. In one, Karlin walks down the steps of a Toorak mansion and explains how cigarettes have caused her “incurable lung cancer”. In others, Mitchell reprises his famous Alf Garnet character to show how cigarette companies manipulate ordinary people. Parslow challenges the image of smoking as ruggedly masculine in “Cancer Country”, which satirises the famous Marlboro Man in both the country aesthetic Parslow adopts whilst smoking, and the tag-line “Welcome to Cancer Country”.
A single ‘straight’ ad that formed an important part of the 1971 campaign had a different vibe and purpose to these satirical ads. It was fronted by Nobel prize-winning medical scientist, Sir Frank Macfarlane ‘Mac’ Burnet, who endorsed the efforts of Cancer Council Victoria (then the Anti-Cancer Council of Victoria) to bring attention to the harms of smoking and urge government to ban cigarette advertising. Of critical importance, he tells the audience, is the link between smoking and lung cancer, and what was at the time a disturbing rise in teenage smoking rates in Australia driven by cigarette advertising. Banning such advertising was of critical importance to public health (Westmore, 2024).
The satirical ads worked together with the straight public commentary by Burnett to affect feelings amongst the public and in government. The exhibition shows how the campaign contributed to Gough Whitlam’s government banning of tobacco advertising on television from 1973, a major step towards de-normalising smoking in Australian culture and one crucial to later tobacco control efforts.
Ads featuring celebrity endorsements and presenting the happy, healthy lifestyles attributed to non-smokers were used through the 1980s with the “Quitters are Winners” tagline. However, behavioural researchers found that, although popular with non-smokers, these ads missed the mark with many smokers. Instead, focus group research showed that provocative information about bodily damage smoking was most likely to cause smokers to consider quitting. Graphic depictions of the harms caused by smoking, such as lung disease, blocked arteries, and stroke, was once thought to cause too much fear and lead smokers to ignore the health messages. But further research showed that ads causing fear, disgust, or a sense of threat have can motivate people to quit (Sutton, 1992).
This approach was pioneered by Bevins in “Sponge”, which likens the human lung to a sponge that soaks up cigarette tar during smoking. In the ad, the tar consumed in a year of smoking is wrung out into a beaker, creating a powerful metaphor for the harm to the body caused by smoking. So powerful is this ad that it has been revived numerous times in the decades since, most recently in 2022.
The Sponge ad set the stage for a turn to visceral filmmaking and messaging focused on motivating smokers to quit, an approach that was also guided by behavioural scientists, advertisers, and filmmakers who sought insights from focus groups and post-airing surveys. Later ads, such as those in the National Tobacco Campaign of 1997 famously featured the tagline “Every cigarette is doing you damage” (Hill and Carroll, 2003), and more recent ads shown in the exhibition like “Bubble Wrap” and “Sticky Blood”, use many of the same ideas of metaphoric story-telling to visually stimulate audience disgust and fear with the aim of driving smokers to quit.
But such messaging also helped shape emotive and beautiful films like Ray Lawrence’s depiction of a young girl telling her bed-ridden, sick father all of the things she had done in a day and that he was missing because of his smoking-induced illness. The original script focused on the father’s feelings of guilt, but test audiences found this too manipulative. By turning the camera onto the daughter, the audience instead felt her sadness and loss at her father’s absence, which made for a far more powerful film. The effort to pull at heart strings in Lawrence’s film also evoked sadness and grief at the damage caused by smoking, and the fragility of life.
Although the shifts from educational, to satirical, to celebrity-endorsed, to emotive fear-, disgust- or grief-arousing anti-tobacco filmmaking are clear and profound, we identified some enduring visual and narrative tropes across this history whilst curating the exhibition. From early on, the dangers of smoking were highlighted with an attempt to evoke an emotional response, such as disgust, horror, and even fear. Miriam Karlin stands on a coffin in one of the 1971 ads, telling the audience that smoking will put “you in the black box”. Although a riff on an existing tobacco advert at the time, it was also meant to provoke audience shock and fear, and pre-dated the proof that such messaging was effective by over a decade.
The use of visual metaphor has also been consistent. There is a focus on the lung and the damage caused to breathing by smoking. In the 1971 “Cancer Country” ad, the final frame is an x-ray of the chest with an arrow highlighting the position in the lung where cancer has arisen. This focus on the lung carries through “Sponge” and “Bubble-wrap”. Lung damage is also prominent in the “Lung” ad of the National Tobacco Campaign where viewers follow the passage of inhaled smoke from the mouth to the delicate lung lining, which blackens and develops tar-rimmed chambers, before reversing up the trachea and out of the mouth of the smoker who continues puffing away (Hill and Carroll 2003).
These films continue to have profound effects today on filmmaking, advertising, and—of course—on public health. They can be credited with helping the steady decline in smoking in Australia over the last fifty years. Politicians, journalists, and other filmmakers frequently reference their taglines. Importantly, it is often argued that this filmmaking could provide a model for addressing other public health issues using satire and appeals to visceral emotions. Today, for instance, Australia faces a proliferation of gambling advertising and a counter-campaign has public support and could help drive government to enact change (Holbrook and Kehoe, 2023).
This exhibition on the history of anti-tobacco film-making in Australia provides just an overview of this long, important, and complex history, but it nevertheless shows the power of film in promoting a healthier future.
Barker, R. (2023). Interview of John Bevins at Cancer Council Victoria, 29 August.
Holbrook, C. and Kehoe, T. (2023). How the push to end tobacco advertising in the 1970s could be used to curb gambling ads today. The Conversation, 6 March. Avail: https://theconversation.com/how-the-push-to-end-tobacco-advertising-in-the-1970s-could-be-used-to-curb-gambling-ads-today-200915?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=bylinetwitterbutton
Westmore, A. (2023). ‘“Mac” Burnet’s quest to overcome “preventive medicine’s greatest failure - cigarette cancer”’, Health and History (in preparation).
Sutton, S. R. (1992). Shock tactics and the myth of the inverted U. British Journal of Addiction, 87, 517-19.
Hill, D. and Carroll, T. (2003). Australia’s National Tobacco Campaign. Tobacco Control, 12 (Suppl II): ii9-ii14