More than 80% of adult smokers begin smoking before the age of 18, so it is important to employ anti-smoking campaigns directly targeted towards youth smokers (1). An effective youth-targeted campaign must understand the motives behind adolescent smoking and cater specifically to the age group. Health-and-suffering ads and counter-industry ads are common anti-smoking themes that have been shown to have mixed levels of effectiveness across different populations and age groups, but young smokers may have difficulty relating to these ads (2). Health-and-suffering ads sometimes portray far off consequences that are not imminent enough to worry teens. In response to these ads, adolescents tend to employ rationalizations such as, “I can quit any time,” “It will never happen to me,” and “everyone dies eventually.”
The portrayal of smoking as a negative social image is a strategy used specifically to target teen and adolescent smokers. The age by which many smokers try their first cigarette, 18, is also the age adolescents are developing their identities, and their decisions are heavily influenced by what will affect their social image and self-representation (3). There are two factors, self-consistency and self-enhancement, that have been shown to be common motivators for the uptake of smoking among adolescents. Self-consistency refers to the uptake of smoking if the self-image of the teen is similar to the image of the smoker stereotype. Self-enhancement refers to the uptake of smoking in order to achieve the image of the smoker, which is perceived to be superior to the self-image (4).
This information suggests that portraying smoking as a negative social image has potential for preventing youth from smoking. However, conveying this message effectively to teens has proven difficult, and some campaigns have even been counterproductive.
Ads sponsored by tobacco companies for public image campaigning or as the result of a lawsuit, such as Philip Morris’s “Think, Don’t Smoke” and Lorillard’s “Tobacco is Whacko, if You’re a Teen” campaigns, are actually counterproductive and have been correlated with more favorable attitudes towards the tobacco industry and cigarettes (2). Both campaigns portray smoking as an uncool social behavior while emphasizing that the behavior is only uncool if the smoker is a teenager. In essence, the campaigns advertise tobacco as a grown-up, sophisticated product, and therefore might actually lure in teens hoping to seem more mature. , Social image themed ads, such as these that distinguish smoking as an adult-only behavior, also run the risk of appealing to risk-seeking adolescents. These adolescents are often the ones more likely to start smoking.
An ineffective anti-smoking campaign from Scotland used a social image theme that stated that 7 out of 10 boys prefer girls who do not smoke. This message can be processed in two different ways. To some girls, this message tells them they can be more attractive to the opposite sex if they don’t smoke. However, girls who are more rebellious may prefer those 3 boys who don’t mind a smoking girl. These girls are likely the ones who are already more inclined to smoke, making such ads counterproductive (5). Teens who consider themselves rebels and want to create this identity for themselves will want to be society’s minority. These ads are then ineffective because they are only reinforcing anti-smoking sentiments that already exist in a population less likely to smoke, while encouraging smoking in the population more inclined to smoke (5).
Antismoking campaigns utilizing social image as a theme need to be sensitive to how these messages are presented and whether they actually resonate with the target audience. Portraying peer disapproval inaccurately can make the ads less believable and thus further encourage smokers. Positive qualities associated with smoking, such as confidence and attractiveness to the opposite sex, and the desire to display these qualities, are most influential for middle adolescents (high school students; it is thus likely that this population will be most susceptible to anti-smoking ads about social image. Effective strategies for early adolescents (middle school students) are more often related to the negative qualities associated with smoking, such as being unhealthy and unwise, rather than the effects of smoking on social image (3, 5). In general, social image ads have been shown to be less effective (and in some cases not effective at all) when compared to ads that show the consequences of smoking (2, 6).
1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Preventing Tobacco Use Among Young People: A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Office on Smoking and Health, 1994.
2. Pechmann C, Reibling ET. Antismoking Advertisements for Youths: An Independent Evaluation of Health, Counter-Industry, and Industry Approaches. Am J Public Health 2006; 96(5): 906-913.
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. Aloise-Young PA, Hennigan KM, Graham JW. Role of the Self-Image and Smoker Stereotype in Smoking Onset During Early Adolescence: A Longitudinal Study. Health Psychology 1996; 15(6): 494-497.
5. Amos A, Gray D, Currie C, Elton R. Healthy or druggy? Self-image, ideal image and smoking behavior among young people. Social Science & Medicine 1997; 45(6): 847-858.
6. Biener L. Anti-tobacco advertisements by Massachusetts and Philip Morris: what teenagers think. Tobacco Control 2002; 11: ii43-ii46.