Let’s say you have a teenage son who absolutely refuses to clean his room. You should:

A) Tell him to clean his room.

B) Tell him that if he doesn’t clean his room, you’ll cancel his America Online account.

C) Offer to airdrop him into the girls’ locker room if he cleans his room.

D) Say nothing. Let him find out, through subtle messages you have cleverly planted, that you actually want his room to stay dirty, and that all your nagging in the past has been part of some twisted reverse-psychology plot.

Anybody who has done recent market research on teenagers knows “D” is the right answer, which is one reason Asher/Gould Advertising Inc.’s newest anti-smoking campaign is attracting a lot of attention.

Miracle Mile-based Asher/Gould is responsible for those wicked anti-tobacco billboards that have appeared statewide, including in Los Angeles, in recent weeks.

The latest is a sweeping cowboy vista instantly reminiscent of a Marlboro ad, only the caption (a piece of dialog between two cowboys) reads, “Bob, I’ve got emphysema.”

The anti-Marlboro bit joins Asher Gould’s “Mind if I smoke?/Care if I die?” board that made an instant splash when it debuted March 24.

Eye-catching as these billboards are, their messages aren’t likely to be effective in preventing teenagers from lighting up, and Asher/Gould knows it. The billboard campaign is actually targeted at adults, for whom death from second-hand smoke or emphysema is a concrete possibility.

Teenagers, as we all know, are indestructible. Research shows that the notion of death by lung cancer is so remote for this age group that advertising messages threatening self destruction not only don’t work, they may even make a product seem more attractive.

Asher/Gould tested 13 different strategies during market research for its anti-tobacco campaign, conducted on behalf of the California Department of Health Services. What it discovered during those tests was incorporated into a television commercial called “Cattle,” which is the centerpiece of the agency’s effort to reach teenagers.

In the spot, a group of kids is being herded by cowboys into a pen (yet another dig at Marlboro’s image). The message in the voiceover is that the powerful tobacco industry is secretly laughing at teenagers because they are gullible enough to believe the industry’s manipulative pro-smoking advertisements.

“When kids learn that some adult institution thinks they’re dumb and ignorant, they tend to rebel against it,” said Christine Steele, the account director on the anti-smoking campaign.

Asher/Gould is also employing that other favored technique for targeting the young: the in-your-face gross-out. Its “Debbie” commercial portrays a woman so addicted to cigarettes that she smokes them through a hole in her throat, having lost the ability to puff the conventional way because of throat cancer.

“We’ve gotten lots of calls from people saying they’re going to quit after seeing that ad,” Steele said.

While we’re on the subject of tobacco, some local ad execs are struck by their industry’s seemingly schizophrenic attitude about the entire issue of cigarette advertising. While nearly everybody in advertising supports the right of tobacco firms to promote themselves, and the industry is spending big money to lobby against efforts to restrict such ads, it’s very difficult to find a local agency head who would touch a cigarette account with a 10-foot stogie.

“You’re not going to find that many people in the industry who still smoke themselves, or would take a cigarette client,” said Diane Krouse, managing partner of the L.A. office of DMB & B.; “I think that when you do good advertising, it’s because you genuinely believe in what you’re selling, and you do bad advertising when you don’t.”

Pacific/West battle continues

The ongoing dispute between Pacific/West Communications Group Inc. and the California Department of Transportation isn’t getting any more polite. Pacific/West will file an amendment to its original lawsuit against the state this week, alleging a broad conspiracy by state officials to retaliate against the P.R. agency.

Regular readers of this column will recall that Pacific/West, the biggest independent P.R. firm in L.A. County, was accused last year of overbilling state taxpayers to the tune of $644,000 on its contract to promote ridesharing for Caltrans. An audit revealed that Pacific/West had billed the state for such items as staff parties and football tickets.

Pacific/West has long maintained that the “overbilling” was, in fact, a perfectly legal charge for overhead under its contract. In January, it filed a $17 million lawsuit against Caltrans, which is still withholding the $644,000 it claims Pacific/West overbilled.

This week, Pacific/West will file an amended complaint alleging that Caltrans instigated the original audit to retaliate for a report by Pacific/West that criticized the organization’s management of its ridesharing program, among other things.

The past year has not been a happy time at Pacific/West. The agency has been forced to shell out $250,000 for legal fees, and in December co-founders Stephen and Maureen Tobia opted to sell the agency’s offices in Reno and Portland, Ore. The Tobias have even put their brand new home in La Ca & #324;ada up for sale.

“This issue is not about money anymore, and it’s not about a contract,” said Stephen Tobia. “It’s about a state bureaucracy that abused a small contractor for political reasons.”

Adding to the Tobias’ legal troubles is a lawsuit filed May 20 by JHME Advertising, a seven-person Sacramento P.R. firm that claims Pacific/West still owes it $53,000 for work performed on the Caltrans contract.

Los Angeles Business Journal staff reporter Dan Turner covers the marketing, entertainment and media industries

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