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Where There's Smoke There's Ire

If you drive around downtown Seattle long enough, eventually you'll see the billboard of a little girl eating a dead, bloodied rat. (Warning: the hypertext immediately preceding this sentence reading "a little girl eating a dead, bloodied rat" links to a picture of a little girl eating a dead, bloodied rat.) It's a wonderful thing to see as I'm commuting to work. One moment I'm humming along, fantasizing about the two Top Pot donuts I'm going to buy from the corner bakery when I arrive at the office, and the next I'm looking at a 20 ft. high portrayal of rodentaphagy.

The aim of the billboard is not to ensure that I maintain my girlish figure. It is, in fact, an anti-smoking ad. Below the picture is the text "Kissing A Smoker Is Just As Gross," along with the slogan "Tobacco Smokes You." You can find our more that their website, ashtraymouth.com, which has the following in the "keywords" section of its HTML header:

Ashtraymouth, ashtray mouth, Kissing a smoker, Tobacco smokes you, Kissing a smoker is just as gross, Don't kiss a smoker, Yuck Chuck Challenge, Spin the Bottle and smoking, Gross Factor and smoking, Gross things and smoking, Eating a dead rat, Eating a cockroach, Eating roadkill, Eating a hairball, Eating cat throw-up, Eating a dirty sock...
All of this courtesy of the Washington State Department of Health.

To be fair, the billboard doesn't show an actual photograph of a girl. It's more like an adorable Nightmare Before Christmas-style doll eating a dead, bloody rat. The whole thing looks like something a emo girl would have tattooed on her lower back and then publish a picture of on her MySpace page. But, still.

This is not the first time that the WSDOH has used gross-out tactics to discourage people from smoking. I remember back in the 90's I used to watch reruns of The Simpsons at 6:30 and, during the first commercial break, the screen would invariably get filled with a shot of diseased lung tissue. Just what you wanna see during the dinner hour.

I don't smoke, and never have. So why am I subjected to this stuff? The fact that I'm paying for it as well just twists the knife. There's much ado about the perils of secondhand smoke, but who's raging against the scourge of secondhand smoker education? I mean, let's face it: at this point I would pretty much have to voluntarily put myself in the position of inhaling secondhand smoke (especially since the passage of Initiative 901, Washington's recent paean to the Nanny State), while these unappetizing ads are erected in the middle of our public square.

For that matter, why should smokers be subjected to these? These billboards don't even offer education, only condemnation. At least when they cut from Ralph Wiggum to lip cancer, they were showing you something connected to the hazards of smoking. What the hell does a billboard of Gothy McMopper eating rat-on-the-cob have to do with anything? They aren't supplying smokers with the facts so they can make informed decision anymore -- now their goal, as near as I can tell, is simply to make smoking Not Enjoyable. I dislike your habit, so I'm going to make you dislike it too. It's aversion therapy without the high electrical bill.

When you think about it, though, this ad isn't even for smokers. It says "Kissing A Smoker Is Just as Gross," implying that this billboard is aimed at friends of smokers. That's right: we're paying the state to run ads to train us to shun people for smoking. Jeeze, I can't imagine why the folks in this city are perpetually pissed off about taxes.

Posted on August 10, 2006 to Seattle


Even worse than the billboards were the commercials featuring the rat eater. For a while, they played before movies at one of the downtown multiplexes and may have occasionally showed up on television. I was so annoyed by these gross-out tactics that I thought about taking up smoking out of spite.

Posted by: josh on August 11, 2006 12:00 AM

>I thought about taking up smoking out of spite.

Yeah! Give yourself cancer, that'll show 'em who's boss!

Posted by: John on August 11, 2006 1:12 AM

You completely missed the point of these ads. It is indeed directed at the smokers. It's saying to them that nobody wants to kiss them... and trust me, that works.

Posted by: Johan on August 11, 2006 2:07 AM

Surely they're intended to discourage young people from taking up smoking?

Posted by: Rory Parle on August 11, 2006 3:14 AM

As a non-smoker I enjoy those sort of ads, nothing like a bit of undeserved, smug self-righteousness to perk up your morning.It's a little pat on the back for all those 'right' but dull decisions you make in life.
Anyway, I don't think the associated imagery is any less ridiculous that what the smoking companies have used in adverts to try and convince smokers to smoke.
Obviously advertising is a very powerful influence, so if this is an effective way of reducing smoking, than why not. Probably cheaper than the health bills, and better for the smokers who end up quitting.

Posted by: paul on August 11, 2006 3:47 AM

The huge multi-billion-dollar tobacco settlements of the late '90s is what pays for those ads, though the money would have been better spent buying bricks to chuck through random living room windows with notes attached reading "The next one will be aimed at your face, black lung!"

But seriously, if you don't want young people to smoke, raise the legal age to buy tobacco and increase the penalties for breaking the law. If you don't want people to smoke at all, ban cigarettes. If you want people to think you're actually doing something with all that tobacco money, put up a billboard.

Posted by: The C.H.U.D. on August 11, 2006 3:49 AM

Ewww. And Gross! If they're going to use such tactics, the least they can do in conjunction is make it okay for me to walk around town shooting smokers in the head with a large caliber handgun.

Posted by: christian on August 11, 2006 4:24 AM

These are just as bad as the pro-life demonstrators I see on street corners periodically holding big posters of aborted fetuses.

I don't smoke, nor do I believe my wife will ever choose an abortion (allowing for some medical life or death situations), but I don't think I should be telling you what to do.

Besides, i don't want to be subjected to this kind of imagery on my way to Target to buy diapers. Why can't we put up more billboards of mostly naked people drinking coors light? Those were at least enjoyable to look at.

Posted by: John on August 11, 2006 4:51 AM


I don't smoke, nor do I believe my wife will ever choose an abortion (allowing for some medical life or death situations), but I don't think I should be telling you what to do.

That's all well and good, but I don't believe smokers have the right to be telling my lungs what they should and shouldn't be exposed to in public, either. We have laws against loud noise, we have laws against the intentional release of harmful chemicals, we have laws against public urination and defecation...but it's OK for someone to blow cancer-juice in my face standing three feet outside the door of my office.

Fuck 'em. They deserve every bit of ill will they get and every bit of guilt they feel from ads like this. That's the best use of tobacco company money I've ever seen. (I still love those "truth" ads with the dead rat. Those were great.)

Posted by: Chris on August 11, 2006 6:05 AM

Looking at the ad, it seems to be a deterent to prevent high school kids from starting smoking in the first place. The gross-out factor to counter the 'smoking is cool' image, the doll like anime quality of the billboard, the appeal to the dating anxiety of teens all point to it.

Of course, little rat-eating girl may very well backfire among the emo/goth crowd - "Smoking is like eating a rat! But without the blood and plague risk! All right!" (Except that emo kids would never speak in exclamation points, but I don't feel like coming up with appropriate death rat emo poetry at the moment.)

In either case, it's still not something I'd want to see on my ride to work. Maybe they should post a billboard outside the high school since that seems to be their target audience.

Posted by: Julie on August 11, 2006 6:51 AM

It's good for getting people talking. Especially parents and teens.

Parent: Holy Crapoly did you see that? Why, your generation knows no limits to disgusting filth!

Teen: No, Dad, it's an ad campaign to remind people that SMOKING is disgusting filth; and that smokers can only kiss rat eaters.

Then the lightbulb goes off for the teen, and to boot they are having a conversation.

I don't understand why there is so much hostility between non-smokers/smokers. We all have some sort of bad habit or vice, and whether we like it or not it probably impacts someone elses life. For instance, anger and apathy tear humanity apart.

Posted by: maybeknott on August 11, 2006 6:59 AM

The ad is **obviously** aimed at smokers.

Most smokers, just like everybody else, want to feel attractive. The message of this ad is that smoking is not only unattractive, but gross.

Good ad. Only wish it was more grisly and there were a lot more ads like it all over the place.

Posted by: dsafdsaf on August 11, 2006 7:30 AM

Yay! Go Seattle! Ban the evil tobacco! Legalize pot... oops, nevermind.
Seriously, the anti-smoking propaganda pisses me off. It is being blown so far out of proportion. If second-hand smoke killed, humanity would be extinct by now. Europe for one would certainly be a desert. heh heh.
I've been smoking since '86, but over the years I have gone from 1/2 pack a day to 1-2 a day to "drunk smoker" (you know when you're at a party and everyone around you lights up). I'm getting sick of tobacco smoke and basically ready to quit altogether. And I still think the anti-smoking campaigns are going about it all wrong.
Case in point, my oldest son. When he was 8, they told him in school that smoking kills. He didn't want me dead so he tried to make me quit. I tried my best, but ended up sneaking a cigarette every now and then, because hey, I'd been doing it for almost 20 years and let's face it I was addicted. Two years later, my son tells me, "Mom, I've seen you smoking all this time and you are not dead. The school lied to me. I'm going to start smoking as soon as I turn eighteen". Nice going, school. Now I have to find creative ways to talk him out of it.
You want people to quit? Make the cigarettes expensive as heck and hard to buy. Expand the non-smoking areas. That's what helped me. And go easy on the poor guys who cannot quit, this stuff is addictive and no, if you happen to be in a 100-yard radius of a guy smoking a filtered cigarette, it will NOT kill you.

Posted by: Goldie on August 11, 2006 7:31 AM

I think the ad is geared towards youth as well to discourage them from starting smoking.
As a smoker myself, everytime I see an ad about smoking, I just laugh...like some commercial is going to make me quit. I know my breath stinks, i don't need a billboard to tell me that.

Posted by: Robin on August 11, 2006 7:33 AM

Demonizing smokers--rather than smoking--isn't a fair tactic, and it's one that's likely to backfire. There are enough objective reasons to not smoke without resorting to pure propaganda. This sort of demonizing just encourages smokers to think of themselves as outsiders who are being persecuted unfairly. If I were a smoker, I'd smoke a few extra out of spite. Most of the 'truth' ads were good in that they targeted the companies pushing this evil rather than the users of it. That, IMHO, is a far better and more enlightening tactic.

Posted by: wheat on August 11, 2006 7:59 AM
Demonizing smokers--rather than smoking--isn't a fair tactic, and it's one that's likely to backfire.

I thought that, too. Until my home state of Colorado went smoke-free on July 1. Now It's illegal to light up inside any bar/restaraunt/church. I wish I could say I disagreed with the law, but it's nice to come home from the neighborhood tavern not smelling like you just bathed in an ashtray.

Posted by: Broz on August 11, 2006 8:10 AM

Great! I read this before I ate, and now I'm hungry for smoked rat. THANKS.

Posted by: Rob Cockerham on August 11, 2006 8:53 AM

Y'know, given how crazy addictive tobacco is (I stopped smoking 7 years ago and still crave one almost every time I smell it) I think that any measure to try and prevent people from smoking is worthwhile. And, gross out advertising is certainly one measure that has the potential to work. It's nice to think that smokers can quit based on informed opinion and logic, but most people just don't work that way. If they did, McDonald's would be bankrupt, we'd all exercise an hour a day, and *nobody would smoke*. Fact is, we're not so different from lab rats; people are illogical and sometimes need a little aversion therapy to stop doing stupid things.

Posted by: Blake Richards on August 11, 2006 9:09 AM

the ashtraymouth campaign has been running for quite sometime now and unfortunately, as refreshingly different it is from the tired "truth" campaign i think that rather than convincing young people to not pick up a dirty habit it makes current smokers out to be disgusting freaks. this is not the same thing, nor is the latter a strong motivator to not be a smoker yourself. the intolerance of smokers approach does not surprise me coming from seattle- and i can safely say this, having lived there for 6 years :)

Posted by: monica on August 11, 2006 9:36 AM

My thoughts have always been that if smoking is so bad for everyone, then it should be banned outright. But no level of government wants to ban it because of the ridiculous amount of tax revenue it brings in and because of the money from the tobacco settlement.

Plus, smokers actually save money on Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid. Because smokers tend to die so much sooner than everyone else, there's that much more entitlement money we won't have to spend on them late in life.

It doesn't really matter how expensive cigarrettes are or how hard they are to purchase, people are going to smoke. There's not a single one of us who didn't have the "smoking is bad for you" talk in school, but millions of us started smoking anyway.

Posted by: Frank on August 11, 2006 9:43 AM

John said:...but it's OK for someone to blow cancer-juice in my face standing three feet outside the door of my office. Fuck 'em. They deserve every bit of ill will they get and every bit of guilt they feel from ads like this.

Ads like these don't make me feel guilty for smoking. I don't think kissing a smoker is as gross as eating a rat, and I didn't think that before I started smoking, either. And it's illegal for someone to be three feet from the door of your office, smoking. Besides, anyone who'd be that inconsiderate-- their problem isn't smoking, it's being an asshole.

and Johan said: It's saying to them that nobody wants to kiss them... and trust me, that works.

I find plenty of people who want to kiss me, dude. I do, y'know, brush my teeth. I don't put the cigarette out on my tongue when I'm done with it.

Posted by: kate on August 11, 2006 9:49 AM

Maybe they are just trying to sell Chewley's gum.

ever think of that?

Posted by: Meredith on August 11, 2006 10:06 AM

What makes you say that the rat is dead?

Posted by: Elizabeth on August 11, 2006 10:18 AM

I'd like to think that it's fairly obvious that these ads are targeted to younger people to prevent them from taking up the habit. That said, my 14-year old (who is an adamant anti-smoker) thinks the dead-rat ads are ridiculous.

Put a gun to your head - what would you rather do, kiss a smoker or eat a dead (or at least comatose) rat? That's what I thought.

Demonizing smokers - as many love to do - is almost as gross as eating a dead rat. Though eating a dead rat would be somewhat courageous compared to crapping on smokers. Your unfeeling, pompous statements come easily from a simple, self-aggrandizing soapbox. Congratulations, you're better than someone else. Now get into your Hummer and drive home. Or make the right choice and ride your bike - and breathe more deadly chemicals from exhaust fumes than smokers have ever put into your lungs.

Pick your battles people. And be fair when you choose them.

Posted by: Paul on August 11, 2006 10:51 AM

Why isn't anyone outraged about the bad name they're giving rats?

"OOOOh, smaking is sooooooo bad, it's like eating a majestic loving creature."

Posted by: jer on August 11, 2006 11:02 AM

thats just funny no matter how you look at it.

Posted by: debasso on August 11, 2006 11:13 AM

Although your sentiments about the lack of an educational statement are understandable, I don't think it makes these campaigns bad or ineffective.

A quick google search shows me that somewhere around 80% of smokers started smoking before they were 18. These are kids that aren't analyzing the risks and benefits of smoking. They're doing it because it's cool. The best counter to that is to convince upon them that it is, in fact, NOT cool. That it's disgusting, and stupid.

They already know it'll kill them. We've all known that since like 3rd grade. That probably encourages them because now they feel they're edgy and risk takers.

Posted by: Caleb on August 11, 2006 11:26 AM

I think we all must be wary in debating this topic of blatantly ignoring the growing scientific body of work exploring the true threat to our children: EMO.

Posted by: Henri on August 11, 2006 1:31 PM

Those billboards are actually designed to make me laugh, though I'm doubtful that they'll detract from the perceived coolness of smoking in the eyes of the target demographic. After all, nothing says 'I hate you, daddy!' like eating a dead rat.

EMO's the true threat to our children? Sure you don't mean Elmo?

Posted by: freezio on August 11, 2006 2:02 PM

Am I the only person thinking the slogan was stolen from Slashdot forums?

In Soviet Russia...

You want people to quit? Make the cigarettes expensive as heck and hard to buy.
I'm not convinced that works. You just end up with smokers heavily subsidising the healthcare system (something I don't complain too much about).

Posted by: Andrew on August 11, 2006 3:04 PM

Fantastic! My companies internet filter had this to say about ashtraymouth.com

The Websense category "Tasteless" is filtered.'

Posted by: Ryan on August 11, 2006 3:39 PM

NO FARE U didn't warn me their wold be a blodied RAT on that link! OMG GROSS!

Also, have you seen the commercial with the dolls/puppets/Chuckies/whatevers where the boy walks over and chows down on a cat's horked-up barfball, then tries to make out with the girl doll/puppet/whatever, with the greenish catpuke dangling from his mouth? A cigarette sounds downright tasty in comparison.

Posted by: Sundry on August 11, 2006 4:04 PM

The same kids who start smoking because they think it's "cool" are the same kids who will think smoking is "cool" no matter how many dead rats are portrayed in ad campaigns designed less to actually reduce smoking than they are to provice the designers a chance to pat themselves on the back.

The most moving campaigns are the most human: this particular ad is nothing but self-righteous grandstanding.

Posted by: Zee on August 11, 2006 5:29 PM

I find the doll creatures way more disturbing than the rat. There's a giant billboard right near Cornish on Denny, who's idea was putting one right near an art school? I understand that a lot of us art school students do smoke, but tasteless, bad pseudo-art isn't going to make us stop.
That said, I've never found smoking all that gross, or kissing smokers, and wasn't rat eating a practice in a lot of poorer cultures until recently (country rats aren't all that bad for you, just city rats that are full of toxins from the sewers).

just sayin'.

Posted by: Colette on August 11, 2006 6:17 PM

{rant mode}
I am in my late 30s now, have never smoked, am extremely unlikely to ever smoke now, have friends who do smoke and I *don't* hate them... I think the new law here in Wash is just STUPID and ill-written (nearly as stupid as the new ad slogan.. SayWA.... ) and I just keep waiting for where I can sign up with my (evil) cable company as a lifelong non-smoker who NEVER HAS TO SEE THESE ADS ANYMORE!!!!! ~temper tantrum with foot stomping~ I'll pay extra, I'll take a pee-test, just PLEASE don't make me watch the creepy dolls eating cat puke anymore! BLAAAAAAAAARGH!

Or the diseased lungs. I promise, I won't smoke. Take them away.

They're on billboards, they're on buses, yeah, lay more'o'them Washington State taxes on us... teach us who else we should sneer at and ostracize. I apparently can't figure that out for myself.

Posted by: tracy on August 11, 2006 10:17 PM

Bitching about frivolous uses of taxpayers' money, eh? Nature is taking its course. The Squirrelly has a few years under his belt and Dad is getting a little more CONSERVATIVE in his view of things. Resistance is futile; you will be assimilated.

Posted by: Davey on August 12, 2006 5:09 AM

Why is a smoking ban in public places a feature of a Nanny State? Seems like a legit health/annoyance issue to me.

Posted by: en on August 12, 2006 8:04 AM

I think Initiative 901 is great. It's still bad enough when I am in class and then a heavy smoker comes in late REEKING and sits near me. A lot of people are allergic to cigarette smoke and everyone suffers from toxic chemicals being released into the air.

The ads don't bother me, but I think it would be more effective to show a young person smoking and then a person 20 years later with wrinkles, yellow teeth, and a hole in their throat which they are still smoking out of...

Or maybe list various actors who are classically considered "cool" who also smoked and say "*NAME*, great looks until he died at 45 from lung cancer. *NAME* had it all going for her until she died at 52 from lung disease and left her three children behind."

Reality speaks much more effectively than "grossness."

Posted by: Ian Clifton on August 12, 2006 12:31 PM

About ten-ish years ago, when I was a teen in Arizona, there a bunch of anti-smoking ads on TV. One memorable one was of a young woman getting ready to go clubbing or some such, and they'd switch from shots of her to shots of her rotting and decayed body. She'd take the cigarette out of her mouth, and then it would be a shot of the skin of her lip getting pulled along with the cigarette, and maggots and other nasty things falling out of her skin. Really gross.

I don't know if this is true or not, but I heard later that ads like these were being funded by tobacco companies as a way of over-the-top reverse psychology for the youth, hoping to tap into the rebellion of teenage years. This way, they could also claim innocence and point out the fact that they were trying to keep kids away from them. I never found out of this was true, but it does remind me of your billboard. 'Course, if the WSDOH put it up, I would think and hope their motives would be a little more nice...

Posted by: Lani on August 12, 2006 2:33 PM

Oh! It's supposed to be a *rat* in her mouth! I always wondered.

Posted by: ShortWoman on August 12, 2006 4:18 PM

I'm glad I'm over here on the Spokane side of the state! Haven't seen the billboard (or any others like it)...YET. I'm sure they'll trickle over sooner or later. :)

Posted by: Ivie on August 13, 2006 12:42 AM

Bounced over here from Amalah's clubmom site. I find it hysterical that www.ashtraymouth.com is blocked at my office. It's filed under "Tasteless"....

Posted by: e. on August 14, 2006 7:37 AM

1) The rat isn't dead.

2) It's not really a "bloody rat" It's only bloody because little Emma just took a bite out of it.

Posted by: jwandke on August 14, 2006 8:19 AM

I for one am sure glad these images are available as desktop backgrounds and cell phone screensavers. I think they will be effective dieting tools.

Posted by: s on August 14, 2006 2:29 PM

What a frightening little girl.

Posted by: Onyx on August 14, 2006 7:31 PM

Oh, hell yes. I'm watching the simpsons with my toddler (like a good mother does) and suddenly I'm exposing her to rotting body tissue? Nice. Glad I'm not the only one ticked off at having body parts thrust onto me unwillingly.

Now if we could just find a way to get some sort of a warning before Paris Hilton comes on TV.

Posted by: Jenny on August 15, 2006 3:10 AM

My favorite anti-smoking ad ran in the mid 90's. It featured the voice of a girl talking about a group of friends, only one of whom smoked. A supposed photo of that girl was displayed throughout the ad and modified in various amusing ways. The rest of the group had evidently tried to get her to quit several times, telling her it made her smell bad, etc, always to the response, "She said she could fix it" and then they'd show spraying deodorant on the photo or something. Then, finally, the girls discover that smoking can cause wrinkles (photo gets crumpled and flattened at this point) and the smoking girl (according to her friends telling the story) "freaks" and quits, which is great, because now none of this particular group of friends smokes. Way to go, peer pressure.

Well, it was an amusing ad, anyway.

Less amusing but possibly more effective were the ads done by the brother of the actor who played the "Marlboro Man" in tv and magazine ads, which also featured images of that actor lying in a hospital bed with an oxygen feed.

My favorite use for the tobacco settlement money, however, was in Maryland, which used part of it to fund programs to get tobacco farmers to switch to other crops/businesses. (Google "maryland tobacco settlement" for details.) This seemed like a good strategy to me. Reduce the number of voters making money off the stuff, and you reduce political support for keeping it legal and/or funding the government on it.

I remember at one company where I worked I was part of a new facility planning committee. We were told that according to company policy, there would be no indoor smoking area in the new building. We requested a well-covered smoking area outside the building, preferably at least 20 feet from any door, but with a covered walkway or similar. It turned out that all the employees at this particular meeting were non-smokers. The building company reps were amazed that non-smokers cared that much about the comfort of smokers. Well, duh. For one thing, we didn't feel that we needed to demonize our co-workers. For another, if you don't give smokers a reasonably comfortable place to go, they cluster around doorways under whatever overhangs are available. This IS an addiction we're talking about. People aren't going to quit just because you kick them outside.

At a university where I worked recently, signs were posted saying that smoking wasn't allowed within 20 feet of any entrance. This rule was routinely ignored. I fantasized about sneaking in one evening with a 20-foot cord and a big piece of sidewalk chalk to make the perimiter more clear, but I guess in my heart I knew it would do no good. :(

Posted by: edalton on August 15, 2006 7:22 PM

Smoking is COOL. Cool people smoke. Rock stars; REAL rock stars -- the kind that are mad, damned and free -- smoke. If you've never smoked, chances are excellent that you're not cool. Sorry, it's a fact.
And smoking is FUN. When you've had a few and are laughing with friends, it feels *that much better* to have a smoke in hand. And damn, it goes good with a drink!

If you're an ex-smoker and have never lit up since, but realize that this is a another move by the Progressive Facists, you're cool. If you once smoked but quit, and now eat right, exercise and smoke when you're out on the town with bourbon in hand, you're cool.
Bottom line, ads like this are not cool. Teens like to be cool. And smoking is cool. Just outlaw smokes altogether and force the uber-cool kids to buy them from their drug dealer.

Smokers aren't gross. Birkenstock Subaruites Who Are In Bed By 11 Every Night And Never Ever Go To The Dive Bars Which They've Successfully Banned Smoking From, are.

Posted by: Kurt on August 16, 2006 3:35 PM