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.

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