Communication Overkill

Anti-smoking ads may backfire

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) The images of a charred lung or cancer-eaten mouth may actually get a person thinking about quitting. Add a threatening message about how cigarettes kill, and it becomes communication overkill, according to a new study.

University of Missouri researchers have found that extreme graphic images coupled with verbal anti-smoking warnings may actually backfire. Instead of encouraging an individual to quit, the extreme communication awakens a defense mechanism in the brain that dismisses the messages.

"For help quitting smoking, call 1-800-Quit-Now."

The study involved showing 49 individuals anti-smoking public service announcements (PSAs). Some of the visuals included disgusting images such as a diseased lung, some of the messages included threatening warnings, and others included both.

Researchers monitored response with sensors that measured heart rate and muscle activity. Participants were also surveyed about their reactions to the PSAs.

Investigators Glenn Leshner, Paul Bolls and Kevin Wise, co-directors of the Psychological Research on Information and Media Effects (PRIME) Lab at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, found that the PSAs that combined gross images and threatening language caused the viewers to become extremely defensive.

Study participants tended to shut down mental resources used to process the messages while also becoming more emotionally detached. They also didn't remember these PSAs very well. Leshner says that these PSA were just "too noxious" for the viewer.

The PSAs that contained either disturbing images or threatening warning were more effective. Viewers paid more attention to these communications, remembered them better and showed greater emotional response to them. 

Starting next year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is requiring all cigarette packaging to contain both graphic images and stern warnings about the dangers of cigarettes. The packaging will also include the 1-800-QUIT-NOW phone number for smokers to call for help giving up the habit.

And this is key, according to the researchers. In addition to using arresting images to get smokers thinking about changing their behaviors, it's also important to communicate in ways that offer encouragement.

This study was recently published in the Journal of Media Psychology.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
August 23, 2011
Last Updated:
August 24, 2011