As you may have seen in this week’s news, the federal government unveiled new warning labels for cigarette packaging, set to debut early next year, that depict gruesome imagery evoking the health impacts of smoking, from a person blowing smoke through a neck tracheotomy to damaged lungs. The images are fairly gross, but the campaign got me thinking about whether a campaign like this will be successful or whether it will backfire.
The situation is this: After years of decline, the smoking rate has finally leveled off. The text-based warning labels on cigarette packaging, unchanged since 1985, have increasingly become background noise. Smokers are seemingly aware of the health risks associated with smoking but continue to light up. It turns out that roughly 30 countries use graphic imagery to discourage tobacco usage, so there is a wealth of data demonstrating that it has worked in those countries. In Thailand, the percentage of people who thought about the health risks of smoking went from 35 percent to 55 percent. When Canada became the first country in the world to adopt image-based labels 11 years ago, a full 85 percent of survey respondents reported using tobacco packages as a source of health information.
So the data shows it should work. But will it? It seems to me that there are three important issues that will determine whether this campaign will achieve its desired results—the messenger, the audience and the message.
Do consumers believe that the messenger—the federal government—has the credibility to change their behavior? A blog post from economist Robin Hanson put it this way: “We decide it’s not a good idea to let the government ban this product, or to require a doctor’s prescription to consume, then that means that everyone should be allowed to consume it if they choose.” But we can probably agree as well that it’s not a good idea to let the government be decider-in-chief about which products are “cool,” even though that’s exactly what this campaign tries to do. To get consumers to take a desired action, the message has to be believable coming from the messenger. If the messenger can’t do this without fear of striking the wrong cultural chord, it’s possible that they should take a different approach entirely.
It seems that the missing link in this campaign is pinpointing who the target audience is. Is it aimed at preventing new smokers (i.e., teenagers and young adults) from picking up the habit or at encouraging existing smokers to quit? It reminds me of a campaign from the 1980s aimed at reducing roadside littering in Texas. An early PSA campaign that focused on littering as a moral issue and “doing the right thing” was a dismal failure. But a second campaign focused on the core audience, which was tough guy males, ages 18 to 35, who didn’t think twice of throwing trash out the window. They unveiled a campaign with the slogan “Don’t Mess With Texas” (now celebrating 25 years) and enlisted celebrity spokespeople such as Texas Rangers baseball players and musician Stevie Ray Vaughan. Roadside littering decreased by 72% over the next four years. To get a change in behavior, you have to know whose behavior you’re trying to change and where their pressure points are. Finding the right messenger to reach that audience is nice too.
And that leads us to the message itself. Does visually depicting smoking as a death wish discourage smoking? Or are these images so beyond the pale that they have the opposite effect by tapping into the bravado (think Marlboro Man) associated with smoking in early advertising campaigns? For young males, a key target audience for cigarette companies, depictions of smoking as dangerous, gruesome and unhealthy may add to cigarettes’ appeal simply due to an increased appetite for risk-taking. Some of the images on these labels evoke the t-shirts for the brand of heavy metal bands that I grew up with—and those shirts are typically worn as a badge of honor among teens and young adult males.
Which leads me to a final thought. At least one of the image-based ads from Canada took a different approach that would resonate with young males—humor and fear of sexual impotence. Now ask yourself a question—which campaign is more effective?