John Cleese Stars in a Morbidly Funny Anti-Smoking Campaign (1992-1994)

In 1992, the Health Education Authority (HEA) began running a series of ads on British television starring the Monty Python comedian and ex-smoker, John Cleese. Smoking remained the #1 cause of premature death in the UK, and the HEA wanted to see if a media campaign could make a dent in the epidemic. As part of a controlled experiment (all detailed here), ads starring Cleese were shown in certain parts of the UK (but not others), and they used morbid humor and macabre scenarios “first to engage the viewers’ curiosity,” and then to “highlight the dangers of smoking, show[ing] the ridiculousness of the smoking habit.” Finally, viewers were given a phone number to call where they could get more information on how to quit.

So what were the results? During the campaign (which ran from 1992 to 1994), the “quitline” received around 20,000 calls overall. Data crunchers later found that the control groups exposed to the ads quit smoking at a higher rate than groups that hadn’t seen the commercials. Plus the relapse rates of the control group were lower than the norm. All of this led the government to conclude that “anti-smoking TV advertising should be undertaken routinely as an essential component of any population smoking reduction strategy.” In this post, we’ve highlighted three of the better preserved ads in the campaign.

Related Content:

An Anti, Anti-Smoking Announcement from John Waters

Bertrand Russell: “I Owe My Life to Smoking”

John Cleese’s Philosophy of Creativity: Creating Oases for Childlike Play

John Cleese’s Eulogy for Graham Chapman: ‘Good Riddance, the Free-Loading Bastard, I Hope He Fries’



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