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Anti-smoking campaign tests visual elements, backfires


Showing smokers anti-smoking ads might be traditionally thought of as a smart way to deter excessive smoking. Not so, says a recent study conducted through the University of Missouri, which found that using a combination of threatening messages and disturbing images caused defensiveness in smokers, instead of deterring them as they’d previously thought.

The study used public service announcements (PSA), some of which showed disgusting images, some included explicit threats and some were innocuous. The researchers measured the participants’ reactions to quit-smoking campaign images through self-reporting and by placing sensors that measured heart rate and physiological negative emotional response from muscle activity above the eye socket on the brow. They found some surprising results.

If the anti-smoking PSA included either the disturbing image or threatening message, the participant held greater attention, better memory and a heightened emotional response. PSAs, however, that included both, caused a reaction of defensiveness. The defensiveness was so heightened that participants actually blocked much of the message.

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"We noticed in our collection of anti-tobacco public service announcements a number of ads that contained very disturbing images, such as cholesterol being squeezed from a human artery, a diseased lung, or a cancer-riddled tongue," Co-Author Leshner said. "Presumably, these messages are designed to scare people so that they don't smoke. It appears that this strategy may backfire."

Co-Author Bolls said the recent study shows that the warnings put on cigarette packets may now be rendered ineffective.

"Simply trying to encourage smokers to quit by exposing them to combined threatening and disgusting visual images is not an effective way to change attitudes and behaviors," Bolls said. "Effective communication is more complicated than simply showing a disgusting picture. That kind of communication will usually result in a defensive avoidance response where the smoker will try to avoid the disgusting images, not the cigarettes.”

Bolls also said you can’t just put a disgusting picture on a pack of cigarettes and expect people to stop smoking.
"You can't get that kind of message out explicitly just by putting a gross picture on a package of cigarettes; yet, that is the kind messaging that needs to take place to have a chance at changing smokers' habits," Bolls said. "You have to talk to smokers in a meaningful and encouraging way that outlines the consequences of smoking, but also have messages designed to minimize the defensive avoidance responses."

Image credit: morguefile