Blurred Lines: Do Linear Ads Trigger Change?

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The July 17th issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association reported on some results from the Global Adult Tobacco Survey which examined if antismoking messages on television, radio, billboards, newspapers or magazines are influencing smoker’s plans to quit.  The good news is they are, the more interesting question is are they sending the right message?

Over a quarter of a million people in 17 countries participated in the study, over 50,000 of which were smokers (the study control was groups of smokers who had not seen any media content).  Those who saw messaging in one medium increased their likelihood to quit anywhere from 33% in Russia to 90% in Romania.  Those who saw the messaging in 2 or more media channels witnessed a stronger effect.

Is deciding to quit enough though?  Smoking is a difficult to change, addictive behavior.  True, the first step towards behavior change is the decision to quit, but if smokers have been bullied into that decision without addressing the root reason for the destructive behavior, will they take the next step?

As a child, did your mother’s nagging trigger you to keep your room clean?  This study adds to the evidence that media can globally and cross-culturally change behavior, however, the message being broadcast needs considerable thought.

Fear messaging based on the linear sequential model of advertising in which a previously passive individual hears a message, understands it, then acts has dominated commercial ads.  It’s considered a quick fix, however, it ignores the way in which mass media messages are mediated by familial influences as well as symbolic and cultural meanings.

Times have changed and so has our understanding: meaning in advertising needs to be negotiated with consumers, not imposed.

Is there value in bombarding smokers with messages of the dangers of smoking?  Most already know they should quit and wish they could.  Based on the linear model, quitting should be a rational decision, but it’s not.

Millions continue to smoke for a variety of reasons: addiction, weight loss, social acceptance, rebellion.  Triggers based in culture and emotional drive.  Change will come from building relationships with audiences, not yelling at them.

Sherry Dineen

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