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Smoke Signals

Graphic designer Stephen Brandt's retro campaign butts teen views on smoking

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You can read the desperation in press releases like the one recently sent out by the Virginia Tobacco Settlement Foundation to promote their new "Y Campaign" against teen smoking and the designer who created ads for it.

They were looking to "appeal to today's self-described 'cool' youth," searching for someone who could identify with "tech-savvy consumers of graphics in edgy cartoons, slammin' video games, music videos and the Internet." Somehow they found Stephen Brandt, a calm-spoken 34-year-old graphic artist who likes to collect — of all uncool things — antique pharmaceutical supplies.

Brandt also has an affinity for historic typography. He proudly points to torn and yellowing pages of the stuff framed on the walls of his Fan apartment and next to the doorway to his bedroom, wherein lies a fat, sleeping black-and-white cat. Brandt, who runs his own design firm called Munqui, reclines behind his desk and enormous Mac computer screen, explaining his third hobby, collecting vinyl advertising figurines. In the corner stands a case stuffed with product mascots like Tony the Tiger and Snap, Crackle and Pop of cereal fame; their large, fixed eyes peer out from behind the glass at Brandt's immaculate living room.

While he says he is a recovering video-game addict, Brandt has not picked up a control pad in more than a decade. He's not into the frenzied media style associated with MTV and scoffs at anime. ("You can't make heads or tails of it.") His main field is broadcast design — he's been very successful, but mostly for blue-hair channels like Turner Classic Movies. Brandt says he loves the movies. But before our interview the last one he'd seen was "The Banger Sisters." (He says it was OK.)

Most teens probably view "The Banger Sisters" with nothing short of wide-eyed disbelief. They might look at Brandt's collection of old trinkets and toys with a degree of curiosity, but, no doubt, they'd have a much harder time relating to the Elizabethan lettering. As for TCM, you can hardly sell anyone these days on the merits of "The Magnificent Ambersons."

Brandt hasn't worried about it. His TV ad for the World of Mirth toy store in Carytown, his work for Plan 9 and the rest of Brandt's background in broadcast design convinced the Work ad agency (which the VTSF had hired) that Brandt was their man.The World of Mirth spot, whose characters look like marionettes set free, resembles a turn-of-the-century penny arcade. This was the prototype, or at least an ancestor of the campaign Brandt came up with for the VTSF, which includes a short film and still designs for billboards.

Brandt's short film is referred to by the VTSF as "Addicted Robot," after the stiff, cartoonish boy who becomes trapped on what looks like a cigarette smoking assembly line built with Erector sets. The characters and machines move in the same precise, penny-arcade fashion, making an atmospheric, dreamlike world Brandt intentionally kept dark and slightly sinister. "I kept in mind not to make it too cutesy," he says.

After taking his first drag, the boy is set upon by efficient machine limbs delivering cigs to his sallowing face and darkening eyes at an unrelenting pace. Pretty soon the kid looks like a cadaver of his former self and the message is clear. In mere minutes, Brandt's work conveys the implications of smoking without any overt lecture. In fact, there are no words uttered at all.

That's the one thing that makes the success of Brandt's design so logical. On the surface, he may seem an unlikely choice to design an ad campaign targeted at today's youth. But instead of aping teens' love of video games, or making any embarrassing attempt to "relate," Brandt's work preys on something a little more universal: human pride.

The funny thing is, Brandt didn't think much of any of this while designing. Or that advertisers spend fortunes trying to coerce teens every year. When asked if he found the prospect challenging, Brandt seems taken aback and struggles to find what he thinks is a good answer.

What gets him talking again is the method he used to design the work. "Traditional cell animation is very tedious," Brandt complains, so he rarely works with it. Computer animation, on the other hand, is much easier, but the results are unnaturally stiff and robotic. "Designers spend hours doing things to try and make the movements look more natural," Brandt says. Instead, he went the other, easier direction, using the ungainly characteristics of computer animation to his advantage.

Brandt always tries to use whatever falls in his lap. "I don't believe in what a lot of people refer to as a personal style," he says. "Usually a style is just a combination of two or more influences. If someone murders someone they say they were a product of their environment. I think it's the same for art." S

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