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Anti-Smoking Ads Can Be Counterproductive

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Fear is effective. So is disgust. But combining them is too much — at least when it comes to public service announcements aimed at getting people to stop smoking.

In a new study to be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Health Communication, University of Missouri researchers examined the effect of a variety of anti-tobacco ads. Using electrodes placed on viewers’ facial muscles, they measured their physiological response to a series of 30-second spots.

Some of the ads focused on fear, noting that smoking has been strongly linked to lung cancer and heart diseases. Others featured unpleasant graphic imagery such as blood and bodily organs. A third category featured both a fear message and repugnant imagery.

The researchers found that both the fear-based and disgust-heavy ads increased viewers’ attention and memory. However, ads combining the two factors decreased attention and memory.

“When fear and disgust are combined in a single television ad, the ad might become too noxious for the viewer,” said lead author Glenn Leshner, co-director of the Psychological Research on Information and Media Effects Lab at the Missouri School of Journalism. He and co-author Paul Bolls said they hope this insight will help in designing more effective anti-smoking messages.

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