What happens when nonsmokers see smoking ads?
Researchers employed an event sampling technology that provided smartphones to volunteers who carried the phones over several weeks, responding to random prompts from the phone about smoking intentions plus gathering user responses when they reported seeing smoking ads. Among these 135 nonsmokers, the researchers also divided them into Never Smoked (not even a puff) and Ever Smoke (some smoking but not currently). The phones randomly beeped and asked the participant to report right now smoking intention as a No Ad Control condition. When the participant reported seeing a smoking ad (movie portrayal, point of sale ad) the phone also collected smoking intention right then.
So, we’ve got an interesting natural experiment here that collects important persuasion data (intention as a proxy for the TACT of smoking, those random prompts as a no message control, and the self reported exposure responses). The cool element here is the real time reporting of intention at random times across the day versus intention when seeing smoking ads. What happens?
Participants experienced higher mean levels of their future smoking risk in response to prosmoking media compared with randomly sampled moments (β = 0.11, p < .05). The adjusted mean level of future smoking risk for prosmoking media event exposures was 3.14 (SD = 2.62) and the adjusted mean level of risk for randomly sampled control moments was 2.63 (SD = 2.35).
The Windowpane for this comparison is Small, about a 45/55 effect size. Participants reported slightly stronger intentions to smoke after seeing smoking ads compared to their intentions during the random beeps. The intention score could range from a low of 1 to a high of 10, so the overall intention mean around 3 indicates a fairly low intention to smoke. Furthermore, Never Smokers and Ever Smokers reacted the same way to the ads with neither showing a stronger intention.
Interestingly, the researchers found an overall intention to smoke difference between Never Smokers and Ever Smokers.
Never smokers experienced lower overall levels of future smoking risk (β = −2.35, p < .001). The adjusted mean level of future smoking risk for never smokers was 1.24 (SD = 1.02) and the adjusted mean level of risk for ever smokers was 3.56 (SD = 2.55).
That’s a very Large Windowpane, about a 20/80 effect size. People who’ve never even puffed on a cigarette show extremely low intentions to smoke even when exposed here and now to a smoking ad. By contrast, nonsmokers with some experience are much more likely to want to smoke at all times. Note, however, the their mean of 3.56 is still well below the neutral score of 5 on the intention score.
We’ve got two main findings. First, among both types of nonsmokers, immediate exposure to a smoking ad causes a Small increase in intention to smoke, but still at a low absolute level of intention. Second, the intention to smoke is much Stronger at all times among Ever Smokers compared to Never Smokers.
Thus, the impact of ad exposure is smaller than the impact of prior experience with smoking. This is a consistent persuasion finding. Direct personal experience has a stronger persuasive impact than mediated persuasion. In other words, the TACT sells itself better than a message about the TACT.
You can take what you will from these results. If you are a tobacco control advocate, you see that smoking ads move the dial and make people want to smoke. Horror! If you are a tobacco marketing advocate, you see that absolute intention to smoke is still very much in negative territory. Horror!
It is unbelievably unfortunate that the researchers apparently did not collect any data on whether any participant actually smoked during the study time frame. Man, what great data that would be! We’re left to read the tea leaves. Given the low absolute intention, I’d guess that very few people smoked during the study and that those who did were among the Ever Smokers. Among the Never Smokers I’d guess any who tried smoking probably did so not after exposure to an ad, but when with a smoking partner.
The most reliable and useful persuasion information to me revolves around getting any measurable change with intention following exposure to smoking advertising. Clearly such persuasion works. Just those brief flashes of smoking in a movie or those promotional point of sale posters generate a positive hit on the Other Guys, even ones who don’t use your product.
Shadel, W. G., Martino, S. C., Setodji, C., & Scharf, D. (2012). Momentary effects of exposure to prosmoking media on college students’ future smoking risk. Health Psychology, 31(4), 460-466.
P.S. The more I think about this report the more cantankerous I feel about the reported analyses. Pretty light detail and this is hellacious data that permits a wide variety of interesting tests. Did the researchers collect data about actual smoking? Were the results flat? How about Time as a factor? Did intentions vary with repeated exposure to ads? Did they not think of this? Did they think of it, test it, and not like the results? Or are they milking this data set for repeated publication? Like this.