The most effective anti-smoking ads scare or disgust

Published on October 23, 2008 at 7:05 AM · No Comments

According to researchers in the United States, in order for anti-smoking adverts to be effective they must either scare or disgust the audience.

A study by researchers at the University of Missouri has revealed that ads which have a combination of both fear and disgust content decrease viewers' attention and memory but those which focus on one or the other, increased attention and memory in viewers.

Most public anti-tobacco campaigns are designed to encourage people to quit smoking or to not start in the first place and will often try to do so by scaring them with the harmful effects of tobacco use.

For their study the Missouri researchers examined the effects of two types of content commonly used in anti-tobacco ads - tobacco health threats that evoke fear - and disturbing or disgusting images.

Glenn Leshner, lead author of the study and co-director of the Psychological Research on Information and Media Effects (PRIME) Lab in the Missouri School of Journalism, says when fear and disgust are combined in a single television ad, it possibly becomes too noxious for the viewer.

Leshner says they noticed several ads in their 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, presumably designed to scare people so that they won't smoke - but it appears that this strategy may backfire.

There is limited understanding of the cognitive and emotional processes associated with the effects of advertising messages, and according to Paul Bolls, co-author of the study and co-director of the PRIME Lab, the purpose of the study was to examine key characteristics of anti-tobacco ads that influence viewers' cognitive processes engaged during message exposure, which potentially contribute to the messages' effectiveness.

Bolls says the study provides important insight into how young adults process anti-smoking messages, and it offers practical suggestions for designing effective tobacco prevention messages.

He says the way the human mind perceives and processes information in a persuasive message is the very foundation of any desired effect on targeted individuals.

The PRIME lab researches how very specific elements of health campaign messages engage attention and emotion so that messages can be produced that might actually help persuade individuals to adopt healthier attitudes and behaviours, says Bolls.

For the research the physiological responses of 58 viewers were measured while they watched a series of 30-second anti-tobacco ads which included fear messages that communicated health threats resulting from tobacco use (lung cancer, heart disease, etc.) or disgust content that focused on negative graphic images (dirty insects, blood, organs, etc.) or both fear and disgust content.

Responses were measured by electrodes placed on the viewers' facial muscles to gauge emotional responses- attention was defined as the amount of mental effort participants expended to interpret the messages and was measured by taking participants' heart rates.

To measure recognition, the participants completed a visual recognition task that consisted of watching brief video scenes (1 second) while pressing computer keys to indicate whether or not they believed the scene was from one of the ads they viewed during the experiment.

The study, "Scare 'em or Disgust 'em: the effect of graphic health promotion messages," will be published in the journal Health Communication.

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