Saturday, February 5, 2011

Coffin Nails and Death Chic

"God's finger touched him, and he slept."
- Alfred Tennyson
"So do the dead, through the lights
The surfin' dead, oooh make it tight
The livin' dead now baby lose their heads
Now baby, doin' the dead"
- From "Surfin' Dead" by the Cramps.
On June 22, the Tobacco Control Act will require that cigarette packages carry larger, more visible warning labels. The FDA has proposed a set of new warnings, which will cover at least 50% of the cigarette pack's display area and portray the negative consequences of smoking in a rather graphic, shocking fashion.

The new labels have been challenged as a violation of property or free speech rights. I object to these labels for an entirely different reason: they are likely to backfire and make cigarettes more appealing. Given that humanity's greatest fear, it may seem surprising that anything can be made more appealing by associating it with the dirt nap. But the "Death Chic" phenomenon is very real, so these warning labels could make cancer sticks hip again.

To illustrate this point, consider the health crisis second only to smoking: the obesity epidemic. Certainly the owner of a grill would avoid any warnings that eating fatty foods like hamburgers could lead to heart ailments, right? Well, you'd think so, but think again. The Heart Attack Grill in Chandler Arizona makes it quite clear that its food is bad for you. It's not just the grill's name or its slogan ("Taste Worth Dying For"): the waitresses are dressed as nurses. The burgers come in three sizes: single bypass, double bypass, and quadruple bypass. Your order is identified by a hospital tag. And in spite of all these warnings, the grill has a large following. Fans from across the globe post to their Facebook page asking when a Heart Attack Grill will open in their country.

And what about that other addictive vice, alcohol? In the 90's, one of hottest vodka brands was "Black Death". Here is a bottle of Black Death in its promotional packaging; as you can see, the distillers have all the chutzpah of the Heart Attack Grill. Eventually, this product was forced off the market, but not by low sales. The regulators at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were horrified by the product, and were even more horrified when the product was a hit. Unlike in the U.K., U.S. regulators never allowed the sale of "Black Death" vodka in its special dark glass, skull-shaped bottle.

In the popular arts, death sells everything from Heavy Metal rock, horror films, and even a cartoon series. So why are so many people attracted to embodiments of our greatest fear? Human behavior is rather complex, but there may be some simple explanations for death chic. Because death is so scary, facing death is a way of coming across as being totally bad-ass. Also, some of our current public heath campaigns have become so shrill that they come across as nagging. To many people, the campaign against obesity has definitely crossed into nagging territory, hence the popularity of the Heart Attack Cafe. It is a way of raising a pudgy middle finger to all the health experts who pester us about what we should eat.

So how do we avoid giving cigarettes an aura of death chic? First of all, don't use king size warning labels. The 50% size labels are the visual equivalent of shouting, and experience on internet forums indicates that shouting is frequently less effective than understatement. And forget the melodramatic "this product will kill you and every one you love for seven generations" messages. The warnings that are more likely to scare off potential smokers would basically say that buying this product makes you a real schmuck. Here are my recommended warnings:
  • Bought some cigarettes? Good luck finding a place where you can smoke them.
  • Warning: This product will force you to periodically leave your friends to smoke alone in the rain.
  • Warning: If you use this product, every cent you spent on cologne and teeth whiteners will be wasted.
  • Warning: If you buy this, you'll be paying way too much tax.
  • Warning: Being seen with this product will get you labeled as a creepy loser.
And finally, if we could get away with it, the most effective warning label of all would be:
  • Warning: The surgeon general has determined that smoking dramatically decreases your chances of getting laid.
After all, any Madison Avenue executive will tell you that sex sells, even more than death.


  1. Warning: Being seen with this product will get you labeled as a creepy loser.

    I'd consider the guy who obsesses this hard about getting people to quit smoking to be the creepy loser, bud. Get a life. What people do in their own home on their own time is their business, and I'm sure you have more important business to attend to than other people's right, "Fatherbrain"? Good blog drivel though, you can drool with the best of them.

  2. Gee, I'm sorry that one of my warnings got under your skin, but have you checked out the FDA proposed warnings? One of them shows a hopeless addict smoking through a hole in his neck. Another one shows a mother blowing smoke into her baby's face. The FDA warnings are far more offensive and patronizing than mine.

  3. I did not look at the pictures but if they have not, they should have pix of how smoking makes you ugly. I'm sure for teens, being ugly is a fate more real than death and more scary.

  4. yup, they didn't. they should. I've seen at least one creepy picture of mouth cancer or pus filled facial sores that would do a better job. (cancer should be left out. young people don't think about cancer. it doesn't apply to them.)