Some anti-cigarette ads can trigger desire to smoke: Study

A new study finds that some anti-cigarette messages in public service announcements have an unintended result: They trigger viewers' desire to smoke.

The findings were published in the most recent issue of Media Psychology.

Certain "scenes portraying smoking objects or behaviors can be helpful by making antismoking PSAs more relevant and engaging the target audience,” write the study’s authors, Sungkyoung Lee, Ph.D., and Joseph N. Cappella, Ph.D., of the Center of Excellence in Cancer Communication Research, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania.

“However, inclusion of such images can [sometimes] distract viewers from processing audio and non-cue visuals, which are often the most important content audiences need to take away.”

The key, the authors write, is whether the anti-smoking message is powerful enough to capture the viewer’s attention. In such cases, the images of smokers will reinforce the notion that cigarettes are harmful. But when the anti-smoking message is “weak,” these images can have the opposite effect.

For instance, a PSA released in March 2012 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that showed a former smoker adjusting to life with a tracheotomy was one of the most powerful television ads that year. Another memorable series of PSAs was released by the Canadian government in March, which compared smoking with “public farting.”

“Such PSAs have shown to be effective in influencing the target audience’s awareness, knowledge and beliefs relating to smoking behavior, which in turn increase antismoking intention and behavior change,” write the study’s authors.

In weaker PSAs, the visual “cues” of individuals smoking will override the viewer’s ability to “encode and remember antismoking arguments," they add, as such cues play a pivotal role in the relapse behaviors of former substance abusers.

Or, as Adweek puts it, the wrong kind of anti-drug ad will “make you want to take drugs.”

The creative minds behind anti-smoking ads know that visual cues are key. The variable in the equation is just making sure that the message is strong enough to outweigh the potential trigger for a craving. The risk vs. reward scenario is said to be similar to using a joke or memorable sexy image to sell an unrelated product, like a car or clothing. If the joke is too good, people will remember only the funny ad, not what the company is trying to sell.

“In theory, the core content of a message can be placed in either the audio or video channel, or both,” Lee and Cappella write in their study’s conclusion. “Our findings suggest that the audio channel is an efficient modality for delivering the core arguments of a message, especially when the arguments are strong.”