Alibi V.16 No.7 • Feb 15-21, 2007 

News Bite

Blue in Burque

Mysterious billboards have Burqueños holding their breath

Kate Trainor

In Albuquerque and along the interstate, people are turning blue in the face. Among them are Al Franken, Orbit (the Isotopes’ furry mascot), a pound puppy and a pigtailed child buckled into a car seat. On billboards throughout the city, these and other personalities are featured literally blue-faced, and for no clear reason. So, we wonder, why the blue faces?

The ads aren’t the tag of a graffiti artist or vandal (or the mark of a Smurf) but part of a new advertising campaign to combat secondhand smoke, spurred by the latest report from the surgeon general. The campaign was spearheaded by David Tompkins, media strategist for the New Mexico Department of Health, in collaboration with McKee Wallwork Henderson, a local advertising firm.

“The idea is, you can hold your breath until you’re blue in the face,” Tompkins explains. “The surgeon general says, ‘Protect yourself. Don’t breathe second-hand smoke.’ And people really do hold their breath as they walk through the cloud, because they know [it’s unhealthy] …”

To promote the campaign, Tompkins asked local businesses and celebrities to color their faces blue on regional billboards. Their response, he says, “was wonderful.” The ads have appeared on standard and digital billboards throughout the city and on billboards in Clovis, Portales and Roswell.

The campaign extends beyond billboards. In some local retail stores, mannequins are making more than a fashion statement. They’re dolled-up in blue face paint and a surgeon general’s warning, asking, “So how long can you hold your breath?”

Meanwhile, shoppers and commuters have held their breath, waiting to learn the meaning behind the mysterious blue faces.

“We wanted to capture people’s attention … with no explanation other than people driving by going, what’s up with that? We wanted that question,” says Tomkins, “so people can start to answer it, instead of going, Oh, another surgeon general’s warning.”

Arousing an air of mystery, he says, was a means “to get that information across to the public in a way that catches their eye, their attention and their curiosity.”

The essence of the campaign, funded by a huge settlement with the tobacco industry, is to educate the public and heighten awareness of the dangers of secondhand smoke.

Because tobacco use is widely accepted, says Tompkins, we’re ignorant of its imminent dangers. “There are some very bold statements in the [surgeon general’s] report,” says Tompkins. “But, as with all tobacco issues, we’re so used to it. It doesn’t hit us.”

According to the report, 440,000 people in the U.S. die each year due to tobacco use. “No product in the world wouldn’t be recalled it if had those kinds of statistics,” he argues. “Yet … we just tend to accept it as a society and not really take a look at it.”

Tompkins has been revealing the message behind the blue-in-the-face ads through television and print advertisements, as well as radio interviews. Of his agency, he says, “We’re anti-tobacco, but we’re pro-smoker … We really do offer good, solid help for people who want to quit.” Tompkins encourages smokers who want to quit to call the toll-free quit line: 1-800-QUIT-NOW.

As for the dangers of secondhand smoke, the surgeon general says there’s no mystery: It’s a known killer.