Disturbing adverts do not make smokers quit

Advertising campaigns that attempt to encourage smokers to quit by using shocking images and facts may backfire.

That is according to a recent study published in the Journal of Media Psychology, in which representatives from the Psychological Research on Information and Media Effects Lab - a research and teaching laboratory at the University of Missouri School of Journalism - considered responses from viewers watching television public service announcements (PSAs).

Anti-smoking material contained in the PSAs included scenes deemed so disgusting by some individuals that they withdrew their mental resources from processing the messages.

At the same time, participants reduced the intensity of their emotional responses and researchers found this could be such a strong reaction that viewers refuse to take on board the meaning of the advertisement.

Glenn Leshner, one of the co-directors of the investigation, suggests this could have a "boomerang effect" and make the PSAs ineffective.

Referring to techniques such as showing images of a diseased lung, Mr Leshner remarks: "Presumably these messages are designed to scare people so that they don't smoke. It appears that this strategy may backfire."

Dr Hugh Koch, Chartered Psychologist, commented: "Smokers need help to think about the harmful effects of smoking - when they reach for a cigarette and are about to light up. 

"For example, thinking that smoking causes cancer and possible death. This can help the smoker put the cigarette away on that occasion. However, seeing shocking images when they are not about to smoke may, as is suggested, cause an anti-image reaction. 

"It's the 'about to smoke' chain which needs to be broken or interrupted not just how to shock a smoker into submission."

Brian Earp presented research at the Society's Annual Conference this year that also concluded that 'no smoking' signs may have the ironic effect of encouraging smoking.