Ad breakdown: Health Education Council’s “If only”

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Lewis Folkard

Suffolk-based conversion copywriter.

If only ad by Richard Foster

For businesses, habits are profitable. They’re a long chain of repeat purchases, all on what’s essentially autopilot. So learning how to change consumer habits is something advertisers should spend a lot of time learning to do.

But for consumers, habits can be destructive. Your Confirmation Bias makes it difficult for you to see reasons to change, and when someone or something challenges you, you just defend your actions, further convincing yourself you don’t need to change.

Whilst in a commercial sense, that’s a little superficial and not the end of the world… in a health sense, you could cause yourself (and others around you) serious harm. 

In today’s ad, you’ll see how to ‘tick all the boxes’ for habit change so readers feel open to changing their ways and helping others. 

As always, I’ll take you through it. Here’s the ad.

If only ad by Richard Foster

Who’s Responsible?

Art Director: John Horton | Copywriter: Richard Foster | Photographer: Neil Barstow | Agency: Abbott Mead Vickers/SMS Limited | Client: Health Education Council

The Art and Headline

We all know smoking is unhealthy. And we’ve known for 40+ years. But no matter how familiar we are with that, there’s still something disturbing about seeing someone breath in smoke. It just feels ‘bad’. Almost like it sits on a deeper level of our psyche.

It also looks unusual. We’re not used to seeing someone breathe in their own smoke. So the art disrupts a pattern and catches our attention. 

Headline and art analysis

It’s undeniably a captivating photo, and in and of itself sends a powerful message. Copywriter and creative director of 25+ years, Julian Gratton, summarises the art well:

“The clever use of a smoke trail re-entering the smoker’s nose instead of diffusing into the air is a stark visual reminder of how smokers are not only polluting the air that others breathe but are also, quite literally, inhaling their own toxic output.”

And when that message is coupled with the thought of “wishing” it on someone else, we – the reader – are eager to find out more. 

The Copy

Before we analyse the idea itself, let’s have a look at the copy.

Body copy for the ad

And then here’s how I’ve structured it.

Body copy structure

The Idea

The message here is simple: encourage smokers to stop harming themselves and others. The ad tries to do this by escalating the effect of smoking on both themselves and the innocent (yet still affected) non-smokers. 

Because, as Julian shares… 

“This symbolic representation of smoke as a harbinger of death, doubling back on the user, serves as a powerful condemnation of the act of smoking in public spaces, making it a personal issue for the smoker and highlighting the selfish nature of the act. [And it was…] often overlooked (at the time this ad went out)”. 

As we saw, the art gets your attention – like it should – and the headline pulls you in to read more. 

And with this ad in particular, the copy makes the art more emotional. It’s like a 1 + 1 = 3 scenario. Where, independently, the art/headline and copy are powerful. But together they make something greater than themselves. 

So when you see the ad in the future, without even reading the copy, you re-trigger the full emotional hit. 

Let’s look at how the copy does that.

Section 1: Problem

We start the ad with a bold sentence that holds your attention. But it doesn’t give anything away from the headline (i.e. it doesn’t explain “If only”). This invites you to keep reading.

I like the use of “entire”, which opens the door for more curiosity. 

Section 1 analysis

Next, “about two-thirds” helps to keep the point believable. The common argument of specificity being believable is true. But, like always, context matters. And in this context, I don’t think a specific figure would suit. 

Can you imagine: “In fact, 67% of the smoke produced by a cigarette goes straight into the atmosphere”?  It changes the tone completely and seems a lot less personable. I guess this just shows Foster’s class.

What’s more, “about two-thirds” is much easier to visualise, planting the first seed of escalation, which the rest of the ad will continue to water.

I then want to draw your attention to the use of “produced”. Whilst, yes, it’s correct – a cigarette does produce smoke. To me, it makes the cigarette sound bigger than it actually is – almost factory-like. And this begins the impact escalation.

Section 2: Escalate

This section is split across two columns. The clever use of parallelism keeps you moving from one column to the next. 

Section 2 analysis

As you can see, there’s a lot of escalation through mental imagery. Foster’s choice of vivid language helps achieve this.

This section also introduces the innocent non-smokers. Which, as Julian explains, “flips the script on who is affected by the smoke”. Naturally, this evokes a more emotional response and almost guilt-trips the smoker.

Section 3: Credibility

Foster then continues the escalation but leverages credible sources to help. He borrows credibility from the “British Medical Journal” to make past and future points more impactful. (They carry more weight from a reputable organisation)

Section 3 analysis

Also note how he brings up cancer, arguably one of the most feared diseases in the world – and not something softer. Again, this escalates the impact. But now, it also deepens the smoker’s guilt because you’re not just harming yourself but others too. 

“The copy reinforces the message without mincing words, underlining the selfishness of subjecting others to secondhand smoke and driving home the ad’s point about personal responsibility.”, says Julian.

And to deliver the final blow, Foster then introduces children into the equation. Naturally, children are a sensitive topic because of their inherent vulnerabilities, and they evoke a lot of emotion. And now the guilt and shame are riding at an ad high.

Section 4: Action

And as we come to a close, notice the change of tone and seriousness. Foster goes from talking about cancer and innocent children’s chest infections to politely asking you to stop or encourage others to. This change of tone grips you and almost makes you want to take responsibility rather than feeling like you have to. For the non-smokers, this will encourage them to pass on the message and ultimately help smokers stop.

Section 4 analysis

In true Foster fashion, he ends the ad with a touch of elegance. “Right under their noses” ties the art and copy together so well. So when you see the image again, you’ll be reminded (unconsciously, at least) of this emotional message.

And then once more, Foster flips the tone into something more direct, which is also the ad’s core message.

Changing habits: the technique

If you’re going to try to change behaviour, it’s generally better to communicate before habits set in – which this ad does to non-smokers. Or, I guess feeds their habit of not smoking.

However, sometimes you have no choice but to encourage people to change their habits. And you have certain “boxes” to tick, so to speak. 

Like selling, changing habits requires emotion. Especially with physiological and psychological ingrained habits. You also need to educate them and highlight a better way. And then create an environment in which the new behaviour becomes “normal”.

The ad ticks all these boxes. Here’s how…


Throughout the ad, Foster evokes emotion. From the harm to non-smokers to the chest infections in vulnerable children. The continuous escalation maximises the emotion’s effect.


This is present throughout, primarily in Section 3. The credibility of the British Medical Journey helps make the dangers of smoking stick.

Social Norming

And then in Section 4, you can see how Foster reminds smokers they’re in the minority. It’s easier to stick to a habit when others are doing it. When you feel like you’re the odd one out, you want to change your ways and fit in with others. 

The relevance of the ad to non-smokers also helps them hold the smokers accountable because as Julian points out…

“The ad’s ability to instil a sense of accountability in smokers, while simultaneously validating the experiences and concerns of those affected by secondhand smoke, is pretty clever and does it in a way that many non-smokers wish would happen.”

To wrap it up

So Foster effectively speaks to two different audiences. He emotionally engages one and validates the experience of the other. This helps to tick all the boxes of habit change. 

I’d like to say a big thank you to Julian for his input on this ad, it’s greatly appreciated. You can find his LinkedIn here and website here.

Get the next one (with extras)

Every two weeks or so (usually on a Thursday), I share an ad breakdown. Email subscribers get extra insights (which for this ad was the effects of the Confirmation Bias on habit change).

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And then, if you’d like to, read another breakdown from these:

Weetabix’s “Withabix” | Kellogg’s All-Bran | London Underground’s “Starve a meter”

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