For many men, their masculinity, often defined by their sexual performance, is an essential part of their identity. For these men, the fear of impotence is strong (1). It is not surprising, then, that the threat of impotence, associated with smoking, can be a powerful approach for anti-smoking campaigns.
Only a few ads in this category use explicit images of male organs to convey impotence. Instead, most employ metaphorical imagery like a limp cigarette to evoke the same message.
Impotence ads can be classified as a type of “disease” ad, seeking to raise awareness of the effects smoking can have on its users with the hope that people will reconsider their choices. It attempts to undermine the tobacco company’s claims that their product will make male smokers more attractive to women. Thus, impotence ads not only have the potential to conjure up feelings of disgust, worry, and possibly fear in male smokers, but it also may have social implications, though the effectiveness of these ads on men have not been studied.
Impotence ads do not seem to focus on any specific age group. Adults have generally been shown to be more responsive to anti-smoking ads, especially ones that focus on the long-term and future effects of smoking (2). However, these ads may potentially be effective for adolescent smokers as well. In middle adolescents (high school age), the perceived positive qualities of smoking are a powerful motivator for smoking, and these qualities include attractiveness and interest from the opposite sex (3). To many males, sexual performance and the ability to satisfy their partner is essential to their attractiveness to the opposite sex (1), and so impotence as a result of smoking discredits these beliefs. There is evidence that adolescents that engage in one high-risk behavior, which includes violence, sexual activity, or drug use, are more likely to also engage in another high-risk behavior. The survey also showed a high increase of smoking from 6th to 7th grade and a high increase of sexual activity from 7th to 8th grade in inner city middle school students (4). This shows that anti-smoking ads that focus on sexual activity may be significant not only in adult populations, but in pre-teen and teen audiences as well (3,4).
For adolescents, impotence would affect their social image – in this case, their attractiveness to girls – which has been shown to be a strong influence in smoking uptake (3). Unlike other social image anti-smoking ads, impotence ads do not run the risk of portraying the adolescent social scene in an unrealistic manner that would decrease the credibility of the ad. However, like disease-related ads that focus on non-immediate consequences, impotence ads may not resonate with younger populations who believe themselves to be invincible to these effects. As long as adolescents are not seeing the effects at the moment, they will likely believe that they are either completely immune or that they will be able to quit long before they will have to face the consequences of impotence (2).
1. May L, Strikwerda RA, Hopkins PD (1996). Rethinking Masculinity: Philosophical Explorations in Light of Feminism. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.
2. Goldman LK, Glantz SA. Evaluation of Antismoking Advertising Campaigns. JAMA 1998; 279: 772-777.
3. Barton J, Chassin L, Presson CC, Sherman SJ. Social Image Factors as Motivators of Smoking Initiation in Early and Middle Adolescence. Child Development 1982; 53(6): 1499-1511.
4. Vanderschmidt HF, Lang JM, Knight-Williams V, Vanderschmidt GF. Risks Among Inner-City Young Teens: The Prevalence of Sexual Activity, Violence, Drugs, and Smoking. Journal of Adolescent Health 1993; 14: 282-288.