UT advertising graduates tackled the tobacco industry – and won

London Gibson

When Jason Ambrose and Dustin Ballard graduated from UT’s Texas Creative advertising program over 10 years ago, they had no idea their work would someday play a key role in keeping thousands of teenagers away from cigarettes. 

Ambrose and Ballard were leading members in the Truth Initiative’s anti-smoking campaign, which Advertising Age named one of the top ten most successful campaigns of the 21st century and is credited with preventing hundreds of thousands of Americans from smoking every year.

“It won a lot of awards and was really effective work,” said Ambrose, senior art director for the campaign. “But it was also … one of the most meaningful things that, as ad people, you can do out in the world.”

Ambrose said before the “Truth” campaign, anti-smoking initiatives pointed fingers at the people using the product rather than the businesses at the heart of the issue. He said the creative team played on teenagers’ natural tendency to rebel to encourage them to reject messages from big tobacco corporations.

“We said, ‘Hey look, there’s the man. Fuck it,’” Ambrose said. “And so people did.”

Ambrose first started working on the “Truth” campaign in 2001 before he was made senior art director, and Ballard joined the initiative as a copywriter two years later. The two worked together in one of the campaign’s many creative teams.

“Truth” used unique messaging platforms such as fire hydrants and the sides of buildings. In 2000, the campaign made headlines for dumping piles of body bags in front of the headquarters for Philip Morris, the largest cigarette manufacturer in the United States.

Ballard said this innovative style of marketing made the campaign more receptive to younger audiences.

“It felt like it was kind of of the streets,” Ballard said. “It didn’t feel like a polished ad campaign. It felt like a bunch of teens had grabbed a camera and made these things.”

One of the campaign’s key strategies was to use tactics that tobacco corporations had been using for years to draw younger customers, Ambrose said.

“We almost had this weird playbook,” Ambrose said. “We could kind of take a couple of those plays here and there and flip them against them.”

Texas Creative professor Sean LaBounty said the “Truth” campaign is one of the best campaigns in the history of advertising, not only because of its creativity, but also because of its impact on American culture.

“Advertising’s not usually that effective, and it’s not usually solving a problem that important,” LaBounty said. “It’s amazing that Texas Creative (alumni) had a part in that.”

Ballard said working on the “Truth” campaign was different from a typical advertising assignment because instead of selling a product they were selling an idea.

“It was kind of a cultural conversation with America and a conversation I personally believed in strongly and still do,” Ballard said.  

Ambrose said he and Ballard worked to deliver facts about the tobacco industry to teenagers in a way they would understand and be impassioned by.

“You start to realize there was a lot of careless humanity and business decisions being made on behalf of big tobacco,” Ambrose said. “At a time in teenagers’ lives whenever they’re built to rebel, all we needed was to give them something to rebel against.”