This Anti-Smoking Ad Literally Makes Kids Want To Take A Puff

When adolescents are exposed to graphic and gross anti-smoking posters, it may push them to pick up the cancer sticks.

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Graphic pictures of tumorous body parts damaged by smoking may actually lead certain teens to take up cigarettes, according to new research from the RAND Corporation. The study, published in the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research, places the efficacy of point-of-sale, graphic anti-smoking materials in doubt and suggests need for a new direction, particularly when it comes to dissuading contrarian teens from taking a puff.

“We actually expected that the display of graphic anti-smoking posters in the retail environment would reduce smoking intentions among all teenagers,” study author William G. Shadel told Fatherly. “When we dug into the data and started to analyze it, what we found out was that wasn’t true.”

For the study RAND researchers built a simulated convenience store, complete with a wall of cigarettes, to reflect where most teen tobacco cigarette purchases occur. A total of 441 kids between the ages of 11 and 17, each surveyed to determine their smoking risk, were then asked to shop in the store. While shopping participants were exposed to a graphic anti-smoking poster featuring a photograph of a tobacco-ravaged mouth with the words “Smoking Cause Cancer”. Depending on randomized assignment, the poster was either near the cigarette wall, at the register, at both the register and cigarette wall, or not present at all. After shopping, study participants were asked a series of questions, including the likelihood that they would smoke in the future.

“We were extremely surprised by the result,” says Shadel. “For the kids who were at risk of future smoking, shopping in the store with the display of the graphic warning heightened the future risk of smoking.” Which is to say that the display appeared, in fact, to actively increase the desire to smoke among kids ranked “high-risk” beforehand.

The kids at highest risk were generally older, and most had tried a cigarette in the past. Kids who were at low risk and had never tried smoking showed no change in their future smoking risk, with or without the anti-smoking posters.

“We were really scratching our heads when the finding had come up in terms of looking for an explanation,” Shadel explains. But researchers ultimately decided that the change was likely linked to the propensity for teens to essentially defy messages that challenge them. “If someone’s trying to communicate a message to you, and that message is threatening somehow to your self-esteem, your self-worth or your conception of yourself, you react in a way that is opposite to the intention of the message,” he says.

Parents of teens, of course, will recognize this behavior as a strong possibility. Shadel himself admits that he could see the reaction happening in his own son. And measuring amount teenage rebelliousness, he notes, will be key in future research. “If we had had the hypothesis going in that we’d find these results, we may have, in hindsight, collected information on their level of risk-taking or rebelliousness.”

Shadel also notes that the RAND research could have implications on graphic public health messaging directed at teen in other areas, including drug use, or texting while driving. For now, he suggests parents take the reins and have open conversations about the dangers of smoking before their children set foot in any convenience store.

As for keeping kids out of such stores altogether? “Good luck,” says Shadel.

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