This randomized trial shows clearly that an ad image used by NIKE to associate its products with scoring in hockey was thought to promote smoking by one third of adolescents who saw it without the brand name. Though these results pertain to only one campaign, they nonetheless illustrate the potential for messages such as LIGHT IT UP to unintentionally promote tobacco to young people. This finding is important not only because tobacco is a leading cause of morbidity and mortality worldwide, but because smoking habits are formed during childhood and tobacco promotion is partly responsible .
Over a third of students (38%) reported the slogan LIGHT IT UP was related to smoking. We expected the youth in this study would associate these ads mainly with sports, as the ads were promoted by a well-known sports company that is expected to have carefully developed and tested their ads before going to market. Perception of sports-related messages was, however, no more frequent than perception of tobacco-related messages. A nearly similar ad that we designed to be equally vague but more tobacco neutral was significantly less likely to lead to reports of tobacco messages. Although the phrase LIGHT IT UP may have been intended to refer to lighting the scoreboard with a goal or to associate NIKE products with winning, even this is unclear: associations did not change with adjustment for being a hockey fan (hockey fans would be expected to understand the hidden meaning of LIGHT IT UP). Furthermore, the French version of the phrase (BRULE LA GLACE, or burn the ice), in no way alludes to scoring. Such messages may therefore be ambiguous and from a young person's viewpoint the interpretation may not be benign.
An important issue is that we removed the NIKE swoosh mark logo from the ads to determine whether students could correctly identify the category of product being promoted (i.e., sports) as it was not clear they would perceive tobacco messages in the first place, and to isolate the effects of the slogan and pictorial aspects of the ads. It is possible that fewer students might have reported tobacco-related messages with the NIKE brand logo kept in the ads, and future research using the same ads with the swoosh mark retained would be informative. Research on cigarette ads suggests that youth focus on the product being promoted rather than on the brand name, and that brand names may contribute little to the understanding of what product is being promoted . Thus, the removal of the NIKE check mark in our study is not likely to fully account for so many students seeing tobacco in the ad. Furthermore, our procedure did not entirely differ from some of NIKE's own marketing behaviour, as the NIKE check mark was not visible in some of the ads shown to youth. It is not certain that inclusion of the logo in this study would have correctly represented the spectrum of ads shown to youth.
Without the logo, both the exposure ad and the neutral ad should have at least induced sports-related thoughts, given that an important goal of advertisements is to lead consumers to the correct product category. Students, however, reported that the neutral ad promoted sports more so than did the exposure ad. The small proportion of students who reported that the centre pole of the neutral ad resembled a cigarette is not unexpected because the grey shade is from the original ad.
Interestingly, a randomised study resembling ours showed that the text and colours of ads can change the perception of tobacco messages, but this research was done with adults and the ads were intentionally related to tobacco . Our study shows that such factors may be important in ads targeting youth, and even important in ads not intentionally promoting tobacco. Some researchers have critiqued studies that evaluate the influence of the media by claiming that youth are less cognitively complex than adults, and hence less likely to pay attention to media messages . In fact, the size of our sample was calculated assuming that few students would perceive tobacco imagery. Thus, our findings not only show that we should not underestimate the cognitive abilities of youth, but they also call into question theories that minimize the influence of advertisements by arguing that youth pay little attention to the media around them .
A related issue is how younger children would have perceived these ads. Although NIKE stated they surveyed 15 to 25 year olds before the campaign , according to images on the web-site elementary school aged children in particular were targeted. This study was designed for secondary school students, and further research is necessary to determine whether younger children would also perceive tobacco-related messages.
Our conclusions are limited by our inability to evaluate elements of the marketing campaign that were hidden to us. We could not enter the password-protected parts of the web-site that were only accessible to children who had registered at a sponsored promotional event, or who belonged to a hockey team sponsored by NIKE. We were not successful in attending such events and wrote to NIKE requesting a password to access the restricted sites but were refused. Thus, we could not determine the full spectrum of ads that were shown to children. The ads that we did find alluded to sexuality ("Guys think about scoring every six seconds", "Slip it between the legs"), risk-taking ("Some lines are meant to be crossed"), peer acceptance ("You are not alone", "Do you want in?"), and independence ("Are you ready to break free?"). These themes have successfully been used to market cigarettes to youth [6, 11, 21], with the tobacco industry finding innovative ways of encouraging repeated viewing of such ads (e.g., through contests) [6, 22]. In the LIGHT IT UP campaign, NIKE ran a contest in which youth were required to repeatedly watch photos and videos of children posing next to the LIGHT IT UP messages . We did not evaluate how these added factors could have influenced the perception of tobacco-related messages.
It is now established that tobacco advertising leads to smoking in youth [3–5]. Incidental pro-tobacco imagery on the Internet, in film and magazines is also increasingly linked to youth smoking [23–26]. Such messages shape social values about smoking and create environments where cigarettes are considered normal [24, 25], and sports marketing campaigns not related to tobacco can potentially contribute to this process especially when the sport in question is popular . NIKE also relied on hockey sponsorship to recruit children to the LIGHT IT UP campaign, and we do not know how their sponsorship strategies could have contributed. It is interesting to note that tobacco sponsorship per se was banned in 2003 by the Canadian Tobacco Act , just before the LIGHT IT UP campaign was run.
These issues are important because the tobacco industry has demonstrated that the combination of sponsorship, sports and tobacco works to promote cigarette smoking [6, 11–13, 28], and celebrities or athletes  may be enhancing factors [25, 29]. NIKE also donated hockey equipment from the LIGHT IT UP campaign to disadvantaged children, and disadvantaged children are already at greater risk of smoking . More research is needed on campaigns such as LIGHT IT UP to determine what kind of influence the factors outlined above could have on inadvertent tobacco promotion in different settings.