Scenes of Smoking Distract People from Antismoking Messages

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Antismoking advocates take heed: if you want to get people to stop smoking, stop showing people smoking in public service announcements (PSAs) and other antismoking campaign messages.

That is the take-away from a new study published in the May 2013 issue of Media Psychology. Authored by Sungkyoung Lee, Ph.D.; and Joseph N. Cappella, Ph.D., Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania, the study – “Distraction Effects of Smoking Cues in Antismoking Messages: Examining Resource Allocation to Message Processing as a Function of Smoking Cues and Argument Strength” – determined that visual smoking “cues” undermined the ability of former smokers to encode and remember antismoking arguments. The study is the latest in a series of CECCR initiatives on the effectiveness of anti-smoking PSAs.

“Mass media campaigns employing antismoking PSAs are considered a centerpiece of tobacco control programs,” noted the authors. “Such PSAs have shown to be effective in influencing the target audience’s awareness, knowledge and beliefs relating to smoking behavior, which in turn increase antismoking intention and behavior change.”            

This effectiveness is not guaranteed, however, especially when visual scenes showing smoking-related objects or behaviors are used in PSAs whose antismoking arguments are weak. This is because substance-related cues play a role in substance use and relapse. In other words, show an ex-smoker a picture of a cigarette and he is likely to crave a cigarette.            

So why do antismoking PSAs show cigarettes? According to previous research, smoking cues are frequently employed because they are highly relevant to the target viewers, are expected to draw attention to the message, and can be functional in delivering the main arguments of the message. At the same time, when the antismoking messages in such PSAs are weak, ex-smokers report increased smoking urges, leading to the evaluation of such PSAs as being less persuasive.            

According to Drs. Lee and Cappella, someone’s ability to process multiple media messages has limits. If smoking cues are motivationally relevant stimuli, then they should prompt the allocation of more brainpower to the cues. But they also may interfere with the processing of audio and non-cue visuals, i.e., the antismoking messages. This is similar to remembering a funny commercial for its humor but not being able to remember the product being advertised.            

As a result, antismoking PSAs with strong arguments (defined as coherent and persuasive to the target audience) elicit more brainpower allocated to message processing than those with weak arguments, say the authors, who hypothesized that in PSAs with weaker arguments, that brainpower is allocated more to the visual cues than the arguments.            

“In theory, the core content of a message can be placed in either the audio or video channel, or both,” concluded Drs. Lee and Cappella. “Our findings suggest that the audio channel is an efficient modality for delivering the core arguments of a message, especially when the arguments are strong.”            

“Scenes portraying smoking objects or behaviors can be helpful by making antismoking PSAs more relevant and engaging the target audience. However, inclusion of such images can distract viewers from processing audio and non-cue visuals, which are often the most important content audiences need to take away.”

Media Contact: Julie Sloane,, 215-746-1798