Igniting Word of Mouth: How WOM Reduced Teen Smoking in South Carolina

Social Media Marketing


I’d like to welcome Jeff Ogden as today’s guest blogger. Jeff is President of the sales lead generation company Find New Customers. He’s also the Creator and Host of the syndicated TV on the Web show, Marketing Made Simple TV. Follow Jeff on Twitter at @fearlesscomp.

Word of mouth is generally considered to be the most powerful form of marketing available.  But too often it is poorly understood, especially since most of us look at it from the lens of our experiences.

Why is it so important to learn the principles of Word of Mouth marketing? Simply said, it’s low cost, even free. But it is also a lot of hard work.  Perhaps the best way to explain the power and effort required with Word of Mouth marketing is to share a success story.

The Word of Mouth marketing firm Brains on Fire worked with the State of South Carolina in a project to reduce teen smoking. Other states were running TV ads, but when the ads stopped, smoking went back up.  The goal was to develop something more sustainable. The project was named Rage against the Haze; here is their story.


When the state of South Carolina received their Tobacco Settlement stipend, it became the responsibility of the state to create an awareness campaign for teens about the dangers of tobacco use. And do it in Big Tobacco’s back yard was not an easy task.

Other states were pumping their settlement funds into huge media campaigns with in-your-face TV ads. But once the ads quit running, the teen smoking rates went back up (SOURCE: American Cancer Society).


  • To spread awareness of the dangers of tobacco use
  • To cause a 5% decrease in youth smoking rates in South Carolina
  • To create something so powerful, it would survive budget cuts


Instead of trying to engineer a media campaign, they created something much more sustainable. They gave the reins to the teens and helped them develop a youth-led movement. So, they hand-picked 92 teens who we knew could champion the cause. These teens played a key role in the development of everything – from the name and identity, to the proprietary curriculum that was penned. The agency trained and armed the teens with the tools to spread the word, and then sent them on their way to find other “ViralMentalists™.”

To help, the agency conducted weekend retreats, statewide tours, Festi-Viral events led by the teens in different cities across the state. They created an interactive website where teens could check in with each other, and a RAGE store where they could get SWAG – but only if they were out spreading the word and could prove it.

The agency sparked and shaped the movement. But the teens are the ones that owned and grew it.


  • 16.9% drop in youth tobacco use rates, surpassing the 5% goal – one of the highest in the nation. That’s with no mass media. And no tax increase on cigarettes.
  • There are 6,000+ active ViralMentalists Raging Against the Haze.
  • The smoking rate drop is unprecedented since SC has the cheapest cigarette prices in the nation. The rest of the US funded television and school campaigns from a $206 billion settlement — none of which was ever implemented by the state of South Carolina. And the budget did get hit by a bus. But RAGE lives on and continues to grow.
  • The RAGE movement has earned a WOMMIE Award, a National ADDY and a 2008 gold EFFIE Award.

Word of Mouth marketing is incredibly powerful, but you have to take risks, like putting teenagers in charge.  You have to pick your champions careful – passion far more important than popularity.  And you have to let your champions lead.

“We sparked and shaped the movement. But the teens are the ones that owned and grew it.”