A Marquette University advertising professor has performed research that shows anti-smoking marketing campaigns are failing to convince college-age smokers to quit.

The advertising strategy that cigarette makers and many t">

About AEF | Newsletter | Site Map | Legal | Advanced Search
Print Version

Anti-smoking ads creating defiance

A Marquette University advertising professor has performed research that shows anti-smoking marketing campaigns are failing to convince college-age smokers to quit.

The advertising strategy that cigarette makers and many tobacco control boards around the country take is actually having a boomerang effect on young smokers, says Joyce Wolburg, an associate professor in Marquette's advertising and public relations department.

"Many of the anti-smoking messages create defiance among smokers, making them stronger in their resolve to smoke," she says.

State and national groups hoping to curb the number of young people who light up need to create messages to counteract the contempt that young smokers feel when they see anti-smoking ads, Wolburg says. Many college-age smokers believe their rights are being trampled by nonsmoking policies, she reports.

Wolburg suggests that ad campaigns approach smokers as victims of an addiction and help them get past the psychological barriers that prevent them from quitting.

The Marquette professor was inspired to carry out her research after hearing students in a class critique anti-smoking ads as part of an advertising research assignment.

"I heard my students say things like: 'Every time I see one of those ads, I just want to light up,'" recalls Wolburg. "That told me the ads weren't working like they were supposed to."

Wolburg wrote a research paper based on her findings at Marquette that is under review by the American Academy of Advertising.

Unintended reactions

Wolburg's study provides evidence that anti-smoking messages elicit very different responses from smokers and nonsmokers. The anti-smoking messages funded by the American Legacy Foundation - including its widely seen "Truth" campaign - didn't elicit the reactions that were intended.

The 125 smokers surveyed in Wolburg's study who were shown the Legacy ads displayed indignation, defensiveness, defiance, resentment, denial and desire for retaliation, says Wolburg.

Additionally, the ads that rely on fear to make their point are misdirected, says Wolburg, because when confronted with fear, people sometimes reach for substances such as drugs, alcohol and cigarettes that are fear-reducers.

"Many people involved in the anti-smoking ad campaign were nonsmokers, and they may not realize the way smokers react to negative ads," says Wolburg.

The anger and defiance in response to anti-smoking messages can be explained by the judgmental, accusatory tone many of the ads direct at smokers.

Insights from participants in Wolburg's study suggest that anti-smoking messages for smokers need to accomplish three goals:

  • Create a desire to quit;
  • Disarm the justifications they use, particularly the belief of entitlement;
  • And increase their feelings of self-efficacy.

Alternative message strategies for smokers should try to empower them to quit. They need cheerleaders to encourage them not to give up on quitting, Wolburg says.

'Body bags' ad

Wolburg's study looked at ads produced by one of the big five tobacco companies, Lorillard Corp., and the American Legacy Foundation, which is funded by the $368 billion 1998 Master Settlement Agreement.

One of the most effective Legacy TV ads for nonsmokers was called "Body Bags," which showed teen-agers piling up 1,200 body bags - the equivalent to the daily toll of tobacco - around the New York offices of one of the tobacco companies.

The Body Bag ad proved to be more effective for teen-agers and college-age kids who don't smoke than for those who already smoke.

"Smokers found this anti-smoking ad annoying," says Wolburg.

Tobacco companies' anti-smoking ads have been the targets of criticism since the first day they ran. Philip Morris Cos.' "Think. Don't Smoke" and Lorillard's "Tobacco is Whacko" ad campaigns have actually proven to generate favorable feelings toward the tobacco industry, says Wolburg.

"It appears to make kids more open to smoking because that's what adults do," David Gunderson, executive director of the Wisconsin Tobacco Control Board, says of the Lorillard campaign.

Uneven ad budgets

In 2001, the anti-smoking campaign in Wisconsin spent $6.5 million on advertising. That amount dropped to $2.6 million in 2002.

"We have to be smarter with our ads, because the tobacco companies spent $182 million in Wisconsin advertising and promoting their products in 2002," says Gunderson.

Gunderson says future Wisconsin anti-smoking campaigns will highlight the benefits of giving up smoking.

Ads that show success stories and information about how to quit will increase the belief that quitting is not only desirable but possible, says Craig Gagnon, a vice president at BVK, a Glendale ad agency that handles the Wisconsin Tobacco Control Board account.

BVK is promoting an anti-smoking helpline in Wisconsin and has created five new television ads that will run across the state in 2003.

"Our approach is to remind people that quitting may take practice and it will not be easy," says Gagnon.

Wolburg believes anti-smoking ads could be created that recognize people deserve rewards for quitting smoking and for coping with the many stresses in their lives.


Pete Millard, The Business Journal of Milwaukee. December 13, 2002

Copyright © 2002 American City Business Journals Inc.. All rights reserved.