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October 4, 2011 / Simon Thorne

Anyone got a light? – The effectiveness of anti-smoking advertising

Welcome to the first blog of the year! Lets jump in with a subject thats very dear to my heart (literally) and talk about smoking.

We’ve all seen them, the rotting teeth, the black lungs, and on the TV the dripping globules of fat from the end of a cigarette. Effective?

Most people would say these images would put people off smoking, smokers included (I bet you can name that brand too, but that’s another story…). So why do people carry on smoking? Look at these images, they aren’t what could/might/maybe happen to you, they show what is happening to you with every single cigarette.

Martin Lindstrom set out to find out what effect these images had on consumers, you can read all about it in his book BUY.OLOGY. This part of his study involved 32 edgy smokers as they weren’t allowed to smoke for 4 hours before undergoing and fMRI. (If you are unaware of what an fMRI is, it is a huge machine, mainly used for looking for abnormalities in the brain, it stands for function magnetic resonance imaging. It measures blood flow in the brain related to neural activity.) Firstly each was subjected to a questionnaire and asked whether these adverts were effective and if they smoked less as a result, a resounding yes was seen among the participants. Were they lying? Probably not, they believed they were rational, and they were cutting down as a result of knowing what smoking can do to them.

During the fMRI though there was no room for hiding, fMRI look directly at the brain, and see what areas respond to certain stimuli, in this instance the stimuli were the cigarette warnings seen on packaging. Governments around the world have poured millions of pound into these anti-smoking campaigns so they would like to think they work.

The fMRI results were astonishing. The warning labels actually induced the craving area of the brain rather than surprising them. The nucleus accumbens lit up like a Christmas tree, or maybe like a child while sat anticipating a present on Christmas morning… Instead of putting people off smoking, what the governments had done here was in fact create a powerful marketing tool for the tobacco industry.

So why are these adverts having and adverse effect? Some would have you believe these anti-smoking campaigns are effective, ask most people if they would be put off by these, they will say yes, who wouldn’t? In 2004 an NHS survey credited advertising campaigns with helping 1million people quit! (Or at least attempt to quit). It showed advertising campaigns prompted 32% of recent attempts to quit, 11% more influence than GP’s had. All sounds very promising doesn’t it? I wonder how many people out of those 1million people upon deciding to quit went for their last cigarette ever. Did the campaign therefore just make people smoke?

This is all starting to sound rather bleak… What can we do? Removing everything from the packets may be the start, as is what may be happening in the future in the UK at least. Can the cigarette companies come back from that? No branding will surely trigger less cravings in the average smoker, unfortunately cigarette advertisers have done a great job in branding their products, although Malboro wasn’t mentioned on the packaging above, I bet many of you would have had Marlboro in mind, well its not quite, but the iconic red colour sure suggests it. Its not just the packaging that is iconic.

In a further study conducted by Martin Lindstrom he investigated how subliminal messaging is alive and well in marketing. No, this doesn’t mean if you go down to the cinema a barely audible voice will be telling you to smoke camel. Take a look at the pictures below.

Which brands are you looking at? Martin Lindstrom found that when participants were subjected to these images, not only did the Nucleus Accumbens, the reward/craving center. In fact there was more activity than when they viewed the overtly branded images. Worrying times, these are fairly simple images to transfer to brands, but cigarette companies’ touch is seen in many other places, formula 1, NASCAR, bars… The worrying thing is, being attached to these other “products” all of the ideology of Formula 1 and NASCAR and others is then projected onto the cigarette brand.
What is to stop this sort of advertising for the tobacco industry? Not a lot really, Philip Morris, the company who own Marlboro are now actually put money into new bars and helping design lounge areas for events, helping to design the colour scheme, the floor tiles and the furniture. This transforms into a deadly combination to set those cravings in full swing.

So, are anti-smoking campaigns effective? I would say not. They actually seem to encourage smoking. One of the best forms of marketing is positive word of mouth, well how about positive plume of smoke? Outside every bar we see now is a bunch of sociable smokers chatting and laughing away. Is there a better advert for a product?

To make a serious dent into the smoking population these anti-smoking campaigns are going to have to make some serious changes. Removing the branding from packages is a start, but how about banning tobacco money going into sport and other entertainment? How about instead of cigarettes being in full display being the cashier they are to placed in a cupboard out of sight.

Sorry smokers, if the government is serious about cutting down the populations nicotine intake (Although the tax is rather good…) you are going to be finding yourselves slowly nudged out of sight.

That’s it for now… Now where did I put my lighter?


Leave a Comment
  1. shopconscious / Oct 7 2011 10:55 am

    With this comment I would like to talk about my own experience, because I gave up smoking 3 month ago. Me as a smoker, no picture or no advertisement could discourage me who was addicted to cigarettes. I would not agree that these disgusting pictures encourage smoking, but I simply ignored these warning advertisements.
    Now as a non-smoker, I don´t like the video, it is really, really disgusting and it will be for certain in my mind for the next few days. But I am sure about that, if I had seen the video before I stopped smoking, it wouldn´t be on my mind for a long time. It wouldn´t have an impact on me because my subconscious would have forget about it very quickly.
    In my opinion or to speak from experience, people have to be deterred from smoking before they start smoking. If they have already begun smoking, it is too late for deterring pictures or videos.
    Retrospectively, I would say that the ongoing change to a non-smoking-society helped me to stop smoking. However in the end, it is only one’s own will which helps to stop smoking.

  2. psu90b / Oct 7 2011 3:48 pm

    I agree completely with this. I feel that the warning labels on cigarette packages have no effect on me as a smoker, I do find that if i’m watching an advert for smoking; regardless of its content, it makes me want to smoke. It’s like a reminder in my brain ‘hey your a smoker’ so I precede to light up. I am also one of the people that say these adverts would make me cut down, yet they never have. However I do think that cigarettes should be branded, it’s how we know what we like. Some people never want to quit smoking, so why should they have their brand taken away from them when other dangerous products can still have their brand name. If smoking is going to get targeted for brands, then shouldn’t alcohol as well?
    I think at the end of the day if we want to quit we will, no advertisements will change this, though they are useful for advise such as phone numbers. I don’t think companies should suffer for their product, they don’t make us buy their stuff, so why should their products be hidden or de-branded. Now this blog has made me want to smoke! wheres my lighter?!

  3. anuconsumermindreader / Oct 9 2011 3:10 pm

    I agree with you there is no effect on smoker of the labels and warning of the bad effect of cigarettes in India the quantity of smokers are increasing day by day……and government cant even think to band it as they are taking maximum profit from the supply of cigarettes………but yaa one thing the government is doing and that is raising the price of cigarettes………..which is also not effecting smoker but giving government more profit………

  4. adception / Oct 12 2011 12:42 am

    I have the same opinion like shopconscious (1st comment). I stopped smoking when I came to Bangor (it is 3 weeks now, yeay!) but the pictures on the package never affect me. In Germany they don’t use pictures or symbols, just text that says “Smoking kills you” or enumerates different diseases. At first these messages were very small, but then the government changed them to big letters, so the package was half warning text and half branding. I didn’t smoke at that time but I remember that my first thoughts were: “This looks very bad, the nice brand is covered!” I even felt some compassion for the marketing department of Marlboro, Lucky Strike and so on, because I think it is hard to make advertising for their products anyway and now they have do deal with those text phrases and build up a good claim beside the warning text.

    Every smoker knows about the consequences of smoking, it isn’t necessary to remind us on every package, we are going to read over it anyway or just keep ignore it!

    And even campaigns like this don’t scare me:

    They are just badly made! Did anyone of you saw the movie “Thank you for Smoking” ( It is a nice movie and by the way in one scene the “anti-smoking-people” are discussing what it is more effective: warning text or symbols on the package. You should watch it 🙂

  5. geggsy45 / Oct 13 2011 1:34 pm

    I’m a non-smoker myself but have many close friends who come up with the same points as all of you, about the advertising not affecting them. They say the don’t like the photos and that they just ignore them and not look at them. Do you think the problem is more people needing more information in the adverts? The Canadian adverts and i think USA are starting them in 2012 are more graphic and have more information about the damage being done. Do you think these types of adverts would have bigger impact in UK or their is a need for a different intervention?

    • Simon Thorne / Oct 13 2011 2:18 pm

      I think a different approach is needed now. The damage smoking causes is well documented and there for all to see. People are bombarded with the information and have became quite good at toning it out. This is why images “related” to smoking have such a major affect on cravings, when a brand logo is not in sight we let our guard down a bit, we stop trying to block stuff out, and in the end it just affects us more.

      I dont think we should advertise anti-smoking adverts on tv any more. Or atleast until we figure out the best way to do it. Concentrate on stop-smoking aids, raise awareness about these and make them more easily accessible. How surreal would it be to go into a corner shop one day and not see a wall of cigarettes but instead patches, gum and spray lined the wall.

  6. mcr1989 / Oct 14 2011 2:40 am

    With myself being a non-smoker, If i personally saw those images, i must admit that they would play on my mind!

    With the general feeling being that campaigns are unsuccessful :

    Back in 2004 The British Heart Foundation revealed that their advert showing fat oozing out of the end of a cigarette was their most succsesful! With 10,000 people calling the helpline, and another 62,000 visiting the website in only a month after it was released. Showing that some campaigns are successful, even though all smokers don’t believe they are.

    There are two adverts which I think should be working effectively. They are the times when they show passive smoking on children (which may appeal towards the parents), and the advert by the government with a young woman applying ash on her face as if it was blusher! (appealing towards the young women).

    The ironic thing here is that none of these adverts that I find effective are to do with the actual terminal effects of smoking e.g. on the lungs, therefore the government may need to carry on with this emotional approach they have started to work on. As emotion is an extremely important part of advertising issues such as this.

    In an interesting research paper I found on smokers and the campaigns, the results show that 97% of the respondents had seen a non-smoking campaign message, which at least shows that people are aware of them. Females believed that the best way of getting through to them was through medical people, whilst males preferred electronic advertising and no medical information!

    Maybe the government should hold more experiments of this sort? In order to delve into smokers’ minds and try to discover what is it that would help reduce the number of smokers in the UK. Because at the moment, I agree that the campaigns aren’t as successful as they ought to be. A lot more research needs to be done in this area in order to develop a successful campaign.

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