A new study published in the current issue of the Journal of Media Psychology finds that graphic cigarette health warning messages invoke a defensive response and therefore may not be effective.
See: Glenn Leshner, Paul Bolls, and Kevin Wise. Motivated Processing of Fear Appeal and Disgust Images in Televised Anti-Tobacco Ads. Journal of Media Psychology 2011; 23(2):77-89.
The research involves an experiment in which subjects were shown anti-smoking television commercials with combinations of graphic or non-graphic ads with threatening or non-threatening messages. The major finding was that the combination of graphic ads with threatening messages led to a defensive reaction among subjects, rendering them less able to process and attend to the message, which in turn reduces the likely effectiveness of the communication.
According to the researchers: "Health communicators have long searched for the most effective ways to convince smokers to quit. Now, University of Missouri researchers have found that using a combination of disturbing images and threatening messages to prevent smoking is not effective and could potentially cause an unexpected reaction." ... "showing viewers a combination of threatening and disgusting television public service announcements (PSAs) caused viewers to experience the beginnings of strong defensive reactions. The researchers found that when viewers saw the PSAs with both threatening and disgusting material, they tended to withdraw mental resources from processing the messages while simultaneously reducing the intensity of their emotional responses. Leshner says that these types of images could possibly have a “boomerang effect,” meaning the defensive reactions could be so strong that they cause viewers to stop processing the messages in the PSAs."
"PSAs that included both threatening and disgusting images caused participants to have defensive responses, where defensive reactions were so strong that the participants unconsciously limited the mental resources they allocated to processing the messages. They also had worse memories and a lower emotional responses when the threatening PSAs included disgusting images. Leshner says that when a disgusting image is included in a threatening PSA, the ad becomes too noxious for the viewer." ...
"“We noticed in our collection of anti-tobacco public service announcements a number of ads that contained very disturbing images, such as cholesterol being squeezed from a human artery, a diseased lung, or a cancer-riddled tongue,” Leshner said. “Presumably, these messages are designed to scare people so that they don’t smoke. It appears that this strategy may backfire.” Bolls says that the recent MU study shows that new FDA regulations requiring cigarette companies to include potentially threatening and disgusting images on cigarette packages may be ineffective at communicating the desired message that smoking is unhealthy. “Simply trying to encourage smokers to quit by exposing them to combined threatening and disgusting visual images is not an effective way to change attitudes and behaviors,” Bolls said. “Effective communication is more complicated than simply showing a disgusting picture. That kind of communication will usually result in a defensive avoidance response where the smoker will try to avoid the disgusting images, not the cigarettes.”"
The Rest of the Story
These findings may help explain the observed lack of effectiveness of graphic warning labels in reducing smoking prevalence or cigarette consumption in England, as I reported here yesterday.
The current research suggests that the combination of a disgusting image with a threatening warning may lead to a defensive reaction among recipients of the message, leading to avoidance of the message rather than attendance to it. As Leshner explains, these warning labels become "too noxious" for the viewer, who has a defensive reaction, and the strategy backfires.
The key problem with a defensive reaction is that the viewer no longer attends to the message and processing of the message ends abruptly. In addition, the message likely induces psychological reactance, a feeling of threatened loss of freedom and control which is best relieved by ignoring or dismissing the warning and smoking a cigarette.
There are now multiple lines of evidence accumulating to suggest that the graphic warning labels which will appear on cigarettes in the U.S. next year will not have any substantial effect on cigarette consumption.