Tag Archives: Canada

Cigarette Warning Labels: Will They Work?

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.

The Messenger

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.


The Audience

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.

The Message

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?


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Are Indian-Americans the New “It Ethnicity”?

Via Slate: Coming on the heels of Aziz Ansari hosting the MTV Movie Awards, a great article by Nina Shen Rastogi looking at the recent prominence of Indian-American actors on the small screen.

The short version: The emergence of Indian-Americans in Hollywood probably has more to do with the fact that, with Indian immigration not really beginning until the late 1960s, there is now a critical mass of American-born Indians to begin making inroads into Hollywood. She writes that there may be a little Bollywood envy as well. Kal Penn, of Harold and Kumar fame, is probably one of the better known, but the trend also includes Ansari of NBC’s Parks and Recreation and Mindy Kaling of The Office, among many others. Later this fall, NBC is set to debut Outsourced, the first show with a largely Indian cast to appear on American television.

Of course, the Canadians beat us there a few years ago. One of the chief perks of living in Seattle is that we receive the Vancouver CBC station on limited cable. In 2007, the CBC debuted Little Mosque on the Prairie, which follows the Muslim community in a small Saskatchewan town.

What do you think? Little Mosque on the Prairie in Kansas?

Based on my limited experience of watching it once or twice, the show doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its title, though it’s still a great concept that shows how comfortable Canada often is with its multiculturalism.

This is what the salad bowl looks like.

On a similar note, the CBC also simulcasts Hockey Night in Canada in Punjabi, the country’s fourth most spoken language after English, French and Chinese, and characters of Indian descent regularly figure in Canadian television commercials. Canada has often been described as a “salad bowl” compared to the “melting pot” of the United States, allowing people to maintain their heritage while simultaneously embracing a Canadian identity.

I’m not certain if we’re there yet here in the States, or if that’s even an endpoint we want to reach. Either way, it’s refreshing to see the mainstream media bring an increasingly diverse picture of America into the American living room, and it’s instructive to see how our neighbors to the North are already beginning to achieve it.

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