Why Anti Smoking Ads Make You Smoke More, Waste Money and Gain Weight

Anti-smoking ads are everywhere.

The government puts them on every cigarette packet and spend millions creating clever television campaigns to enlighten us about the associated health problems.

They show us, often graphically, how smoking clogs our arteries, turns our lungs black, and causes our cells to mutate.

Undoubtedly, they teach us about the dangers of smoking, but the real question is…

…do they help you quit?

Well, as you can probably guess – not quite.

In fact, there is growing psychological research that suggests these types of anti-smoking ads are not just ineffective but can make the process of giving up harder than it already is. (Oh, they can also make you gain weight too.)

Let’s find out how these anti-smoking ads might be sabotaging your goals before we look at our uncommon solution for this common problem.

How Anti-Smoking Ads Are Meant To Work

Watch the following advert. It caused a big stir when it first came out, with it’s subtle use of CGI, and has since become a classic in the field.

Pay attention to how it makes you feel.

From a logical standpoint, the ad works as follows:

Every 15 cigarettes you smoke causes a mutation in your cells. And you know what cell mutations lead too… CANCER. And you know what cancer leads too…DEATH. But here’s the deal, if you give up you greatly decrease the chances of this happening to you. In short: stop smoking.

It’s a solid message and makes complete logical sense. But it doesn’t take Mr Spock to work out that the main focus of most anti-smoking ads is not an appeal to logic. Why?

Addiction isn’t Logical. Addiction is emotional. And don’t advertisers know it.

This advert is trying to terrify us into quitting. Everything in it has been specifically designed to create sensations of disgust, revulsion and terror in the onlooking smoker. Even the narrator’s voice resembles those found on your typical theme park ghost-ride.

The idea seems like it would work. Everyone knows fear can be a very powerful motivator, and countless ex-smokers will testify this point.

Take my dad, for example, he gave up overnight after he thought he was experiencing heart attack symptoms – it was a false alarm – but the experience was enough for him to kick the habit. (I don’t recommend waiting for this to happen to you before you decide to quit.)

However, there’s a big difference between experiencing a heart attack and being told smoking increases your chances of getting a heart attack.

We are numbed by health statistics and scaremongering tactics because they’re so commonplace. Every day there’s a new study showing how X causes cancer and Y causes obesity only to change a week later. And we all know that person who smoked and ate junk food into their nineties… maybe you’re like them?

Getting a huge health scare can be life changing. But, as you’re about to see, only having a little bit of terror is like only having a little bit of martial arts practice – it’s just enough to get yourself in trouble.

Why Anti-Smoking Ads Increase Your Urge To Smoke

According to terror management theory (social psychology), when we get reminded of our mortality (like in these anti-smoking ads) it triggers a panic response deep within the brain.

It isn’t always conscious, but even when it’s outside our immediate awareness, this deep-rooted terror response creates an urgent need to counteract the feelings of anxiety that accompany it.

And what’s the number one way a smoker counteracts feelings of stress and anxiety? SMOKING.

Terror management theory isn’t ‘just a theory’ by the way. It’s been put to the test multiple times and the results are terrifying themselves.

Here are three research-proven ways that being reminded of your mortality can mess up your efforts for succeeding at your goals — smoking or otherwise.

1) Terror Makes You Fat.

Seeing adverts or TV programmes that highlight our morbidity can have unfortunate effects on our waistline.

In one study of grocery shoppers, the researchers found that when people are asked to think about their own death, they make longer shopping lists, are willing to spend more on comfort food, and eat more chocolate and cookies. (If you struggle with staying motivated on your diet this article will explain where you’re going wrong.)

*Nicotine, especially when combined with caffeine has appetite suppressing effects. Smoking doesn’t necessarily make you fat, anti-smoking ads do.

2) Terror Makes You Waste Money.

Thoughts of death make us feel powerless since it’s the one fear that’s impossible to avoid. To counteract these feelings of powerlessness, evidence shows, we tend to become more materialistic.

For example, research conducted at the University of Pennsylvania showed that people who were asked questions related to death responded much more positively to advertisements for luxury goods such as sports cars and expensive watches.

3) Terror Increases Your Urge To Smoke.

In 2009, a study entitled Why The Death Makes You Smoke researchers found that death warnings trigger stress and fear in smokers – which, as we’ve seen, is the intended effect. The only problem is, as every neurobiologist knows – stress triggers cravings.

So in conclusion, these anti-smoking adverts have some very nasty drawbacks.

The argument for them is that they raise awareness, prevent people taking up the habit and strengthen people’s intention to quit (all of which they do).

But is there a better advertising strategy than death related terror for getting people to quit?

I think there is.

The Optimum Anti-Smoking Ad Solution

When deciding to look at how to improve these ads it’s first worth noting who comes up with them. They clearly aren’t created by psychologists, as I’ve explained. So who decided that these ads should be the way there are?

Tim McAfee, director of CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health, let slip to USA Today:

“I wish we could make upbeat, happy ads, but that’s not what smokers said would motivate them to quit.”

So smokers themselves are the ones choosing the morbid subject matter of these ads.

This isn’t good. As Steve Jobs was fond of saying “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them”.

Moreover, the problem with asking smokers what would motivate them to quit is that they’re not going to be totally honest with themselves. I’m not talking about lying, I’m talking about cognitive bias – which we all have to some degree.

For example, plenty of smokers who want to quit are against smoking bans, or drastically increasing the prices of cigarettes – even though this would be much more helpful in helping them kick the habit than any gruesome advert.

Smokers can go years telling themselves that they should quit or will quit one day in the future without ever taking the required steps. And out of the ones that do, only 6% manage to succeed long term. (Well done to all ex-smokers reading this.)

Because giving up smoking requires lots of willpower, and morbid anti-smoking ads has been shown to deplete willpower, we obviously need to change the approach.

The right question to ask smokers isn’t what ads do you want to see. But what ads do you really not want to see, because that’s most likely to work.

If you look at the history of smoking, the solution to the anti-smoking movement is obvious:

In 1929, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, managed to popularise smoking for women by advertising it as a means to improve their social status relative to men. He hired a group of models to walk through a media-populated street while smoking cigarettes. He called the campaign Torches Of Freedom, and it worked extremely well. Before this campaign, it was taboo for women to smoke.

What would Bernays have done to make smoking less popular now? The opposite, of course. He would have linked smoking with lower social status relative to non-smokers.

There is lots of evidence that suggests when we tell people about our goals we’re much more likely to follow through with them to avoid public defeat. We don’t like looking stupid. The fear of losing social status is an exceptionally powerful motivator. As strange as it sounds, threats to our social status can be far more repugnant than threats to our long term health.

Many people put off visiting the doctor because they don’t want to admit there’s anything wrong with them, and many people would rather get beaten up in a fight than get seen as a coward. Call it pride, call it ego, call it whatever you want. It exists.

To put this theory in action, I’ve designed a cigarette packet which attempts to threaten the social status of a smoker.

Now it would be a violation of human rights to exaggerate or lie about any of the problems with smoking. It’s very important to state only facts, but instead of framing it around death, to frame it around social demotion.

Compare the two cigarette packets.

Which one would you least like to purchase?

Threat To Health

anti smoking ads real cigarette packet

Typical cigarette packet

Threat To Social Status

anti smoking ads on cigarette packet improved

Comfort Pit design

I rest my case.

In fairness, there are already some anti-smoking ads out there that target social status by mentioning impotence, bad breath and the weak-mindedness of addiction but they’re often too conservative and too smart for their own good.

In order for it to work it has to be relatable, and medical jargon is not relatable.

It would be unwise to make films where a crack addict is the cool hero that saves the world and get all the girls but for decades the opposite has applied for smoking addicts.

We need to reverse the damage of these pro-smoking advertisements to have any hope of seriously combatting problem. No longer should smoking merely be viewed as unhealthy. It must also be uncool.

Never Give Up or Quit

I plan on writing a step by step guide for giving up smoking in a future post but since this article is about the marketing of smoking I feel this point is still relevant.

I explained in my article on linguistic reframing that the word choices we use can have a huge impact on our emotions.

Giving Up and Quitting both have extremely negative connotations in our societies. We always get bombarded with messages telling us not to quit and never to give up, yet with smoking that’s exactly what we should be doing. This can create cognitive dissonance in our minds and create unnecessary anxiety when trying to ‘give up’.

Start experimenting with more empowering reframes for giving up to reduce this unnecessary stress.

Some examples:

Giving Up > Getting Clean

Quitting > Kicking The Habit

Use your imagination.

Has this changed your outlook on anti-smoking ads? Will you be focusing more on the social problems with smoking as well as the health problems from now on? Let me know below.

P.S If you think other smokers could benefit from any of the information contained in this article, please share it! Thanks.

Meet the Creator

Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks is the author of ComfortPit and the co-creator of HighExistence. He researches the practical ways art, science, psychology, technology, history, and philosophy can help us live more skillfully. To support his work, you can get him a coffee here.

22 comments… add one
  • Crystal Nov 27, 2014, 1:16 am

    I love this post! Doing research for a non-smoking campaign and you just verbalized my thoughts. Do you have a list of ads or websites that use positive reinforcement / social status hooks?

  • Felipe Dec 20, 2014, 7:33 pm

    This is incredibly well-written and this type of information seems like it should definitely be somewhere else in the hands of people in charge of those ads, I can definitely see these changes going a long way and making a HUGE difference.
    So to the author, go as far as looking up and discovering who these companies that make the ads are and build a presentation or whatever(idk how this works but you should find out) and show them this stuff.
    Amazing job, but this info needs to be used!

    • Jon Brooks Dec 24, 2014, 7:10 pm

      Thanks Felipe! I agree. I think as the sort of social revolution continues, hopefully, the news and advertisement industries will continue to diversify and break away from what we consider mainstream. I wouldn’t be surprised if one day we get our news from a very smart group of independent journalists who film it in a garage with a green screen. When this happens I’d hope we get more exposed to ideas similar to those in this article and others on the site. But yeah, I’m definitely going to get in touch with the makers of these ads and see what they have to say.

  • Sean McVan Feb 13, 2015, 7:06 pm

    “Terror management theory isn’t ‘just a theory’ by the way. It’s been put to the test multiple times and the results are terrifying themselves.”

    Don’t ever, ever, EVER say that “just a theory” crap, a theory in scientific word usage is a FACT! Saying it the way you did just reinforces idiots to not understand that a theory is as close to fact as you can get, like the theory of gravity or evolution. I know it is in quotations but it still is a very bad idea.

    • Jon Brooks Feb 13, 2015, 7:14 pm

      Woh. Calm it down. Couple of things, not all theories are the theory of gravity. In fact the overwhelming majority of theories proposed by mankind are nonsense. Not all theories are facts as you say, where did you get that idea? Is string theory a fact? I’ve seen Dawkins dispel the theory argument of evolution, I get it — wasn’t I doing the same here? Furthermore, terror management theory, while it has some evidence, also has some opposing evidence. At this point, it doesn’t have a complete consensus amongst psychologists. But I do appreciate the comment and your attention to detail while reading. Thanks!

  • Xero Mar 24, 2015, 6:08 pm

    Anti-smoking ads typically make me smoke more because I don’t like being told what to do. In the US at least, most anti-smoking advertisements are presented in a way that makes it look like they were created by elitist hipster kids who want to criticize what everyone else in society does while expecting them to ignore their own vices. Sort of like the same hypocrisy when you see someone complaining about drunk drivers then drop acid before going on a roadtrip. Absolutely hating this sort of mentality, I usually laugh and have a smoke in order to show a small stab at this type of thinking in my own mind. Now this could be a planned bit of reverse psychology from the cigarette companies, and if so bravo, it’s working on me. It’s like watching Glenn Beck or Rachael Maddow (spelling on those? don’t have time to google XD), it just gives people who agree with their message a reason to say ‘of course that’s right! who could think otherwise?!’ while people of the opposite opinion say ‘dear god, how can this person be so incredibly stupid?!’, therefore getting viewers of both sides by riling up the populace. Although in the end we all die anyway so who cares XD

    • Jon Brooks Mar 28, 2015, 8:01 pm

      Ah yes, I didn’t cover that. The reverse psychology aspect to it will defiinitely make a difference. It’s very similar to nutrtion, food that are not allowed are always more desirable. Thanks for checking out the post Xero, hope you keep smoking forever, it’s good for you! (see the reverse psychology there 😉 )

  • Ralph Schneider Jun 27, 2015, 7:44 am

    Every message telling you that you’ll get cancer contributes to you getting cancer – it’s called the “nocebo” effect, and complements the well-known “placebo” effect, where your belief that something will help you does help you, whereas with the “nocebo” effect your belief that something will harm you does harm you. Both are “self-fulfilling prophecies”.
    I foresee a very expensive class action against the purveyors of such nocebos!

    • Jon Brooks Jun 27, 2015, 4:42 pm

      Hey Ralph, it’s such a coincidence you’re bringing this up. I’m writing an article on self-fulfilling prophecies and the placebo effect right now. You’re absolutely right.

  • Jimbo Jul 16, 2015, 4:09 pm

    I don’t disagree with your points about the health risks being somewhat ineffective as a tool to get people to quit smoking. That said, the whole “uncool” thing is troubling to me. Smoking is heavily correlated with class in the US (where I’m from) and I’ve always been annoyed at how wealthier elites use the smoking issue really to moralize and stigmatize the poor. It doesn’t always help smokers quit, sometimes it actually just turns them into pariahs. Smoking is also much more common among people with mental illness, who are even more likely to face discrimination and be outcasts.

    It’s important to remember that because of the anti-tobacco settlements that ban cigarette companies from advertising in major ways, anti-smoking ads are not allowed to attack the tobacco industries at all. This means that the public face of the tobacco problem is the smoker, who is really a victim (often in more ways than one). There are all sorts of forces and even pragmatic reasons that drive people in difficult situations to smoke, and pretending that all smokers are just middle class people who smoke to be cool is going to undermine your ability to reach the others. They’re going to feel attacked, because they are.

    • Jon Brooks Jul 16, 2015, 4:45 pm

      Great points Jimbo. You’re absolutely right. I don’t condone shaming anyone for their actions. Humiliation is a big no no. What I propose is a deeper change, in particular by the media. If you watch action movies, the stars are always smoking. Let’s have badass action stars turn cigarettes down. Let’s just slowly shift away from focusing on the health implications — which everyone kind of knows — and instead focus on the negative social implications. The fact that by smoking you’re polluting the atmosphere for children, you’re speeding up your agin process, etc. I know it’s a very complicated issue, I just think we need to start slowly shifting into the direction I outlined in the article.

  • Rosemarie Aug 31, 2015, 2:43 pm

    “I plan on writing a step by step guide for giving up smoking in a future post…”

    I’m very interested in reading this one! Has it been posted yet? If so, can someone link it on here? This was a great read and I’d love to read more on smoking from this writer.

  • Andrew Jan 27, 2016, 10:33 am

    The so eloquently titled article, “Anti-Smoking Ads Make You Want To Smoke More, Waste Money, and Gain Weight”, never actually supports that claim with sound facts or studies… Anywhere. The author tangentially connects thoughts from other studies that have no mention of either cigarettes or smoking, and decides on his own that those conclusions can apply to cigarettes as well.

    This article only cites one, single study that claims cigarette smokers may want to smoke more after seeing death related warnings on cigarette packaging. That study was conducted with a group of 39 “student smokers.”

    Not only is that sample size laughably small to be considered with any confidence, but the participants are also nowhere near a decent sampling of the general public. And there’s one last thing.

    Cigarette packages aren’t ads.

    In fact, the two articles Brooks does cite that even mention anti-smoking ads both include quotes and citations from the Center for Disease Control that demonstrate how effective those ads have been. Neither of the two articles come close to saying that people wanted to “Smoke More, Waste Money, and Gain Weight.”

    Provide a credible source demonstrating that anti-smoking ads make people want to smoke more. Or change the clickbait title. Or both.

    • Jon Brooks Jan 27, 2016, 5:08 pm

      Hey Andrew, you’re right about my claims not being 100% air-tight scientifically. Not sure I made the claim that they were though. This isn’t a research paper. It’s my opinion mixed with research pulled from various sources on various topics from which I’ve extrapolated what I consider a reasonable argument against anti-smoking ads. I do appreciate you reading my article so thoroughly and I like that you’ve taken an intelligent opposition to some of my claims.

  • shawn Feb 5, 2016, 8:24 pm

    Great article Jon!! Resonates a lot with a recent discussion we had on ineffectiveness of warnings on cigarette packets in India.

  • Jeff Apr 18, 2016, 2:18 pm

    The real question is why do you think it’s any of your business that someone else smokes? The idea of appealing to status anxiety is itself a morbidity of class society. Poor people (or chavs or the uneducated or the mentally ill) are not sinners whose “souls” need saving by the enlightened. Doctors are not gods of some new peak-fitness religion: they are public servants with craft skills.

    People obsessed with other people’s pleasures are mentally ill and should be provided with access to easily available treatments: if the prohibitionists become much more powerful that treatment will more likely come in the form of social shock as tobacco overtakes other recreational drugs as the favoured currency of organised crime. That or simply being landed on their arse by a smoker driven beyond the limits of human tolerance.

    Violence -both verbal and physical- is now the daily lot of those of us who enjoy smoking. We expect everyone from the arrogant to the unhinged to frown and nag and abuse and threaten. It’s almost a sport to me nowadays to explain to complete strangers why their reaction to seeing me smoke has its basis in an infantile oral fixation reaction expressed as sadism and/or repressed sexual urges unconsciously direct towards my genitals – being liberal minded I sometimes suggest they just go ahead and act out as a form of therapy. Their faces as the penny finally drops are priceless.

    If they complain about dirty disgusting habits I lead them to understand that their coprophilic ambivalence is fascinating but could they perhaps pay for the next round ? Freud is such a useful guy sometimes…

    But deep down I know it’s a political question and like all political questions it has a class basis. Of all the classes in modern society it is the petty bourgeois who is the most insecure. Driven by fear of being ground down into the unwashed mass they are most in need of fighting off the spectre of the untidy, unruly poor. Naturally they project their anxieties in the form piety and self-righteousness: to do otherwise would be to confront their own shallow worldview and alienated pointlessness. The individualist dog eat dog reality of their economic existence mitigates against the sort of social solidarity to be found in both the workplace and the boardroom alike. If their clever (and sociopathic) they frequently gravitate towards “causes” like public health.

    But really I just hate the whole sorry canting bunch to hell and back. It’s they least I can do for the poor benighted fools.

  • Cody Aug 11, 2016, 3:14 pm

    This is incredibly eye opening, especially since, completely coincidentally, I picked up and read ‘Propaganda’ by Edward Bernays. I hadn’t done any research on him prior to reading the book, had no idea he had roots in the tobacco industry. Reading the book left me stunned as he outlined and showed examples of Propaganda techniques used in business and politics, it’s scary knowing industries such as Big Tobacco are using these very techniques. If you haven’t abandoned this article, you really need to spread this message.

  • Marie Nov 19, 2016, 10:07 pm

    I have been addicted to nicotine since i was 18. Have tried many times to quit. Have never responded to threats i.e. a pulmonary doctor telling me she was going to do a lung biopsy if i didn’t quit. Am on patch presently as i recently found out i may have spinal cord compression from total spinal fusion surgery in Jan
    I don’t want to end up in a wheelchair or God forbid have to have more surgery
    And i still want to smoke! Any sight of cigarette packs ads on t.v
    Or in magazines just want me to smoke more. Would like to see more ads about how tobacco companies are financially invested in keeping people smoking. Meantime do you have any suggestions that will help me quit once and for all. I really appreciated your article.

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