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The Role of Anti-Smoking Ads in the Formulation of the Desire to Quit in Viewers

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Anti-smoking ads have become extremely popular in recent years, especially targeting teens and young adults who smoke or know people who do. Smoking has been proven to cause serious health problems including lung disease and cancer which is why it is important to know how progress is being made through the numerous campaigns to end it. According to the Surgeon General, 9 out of 10 smokers start before the age of 18 and almost all smokers start before age 26, which is why most of the ads and campaigns target teens and young adults. A popular anti-smoking campaign, Truth, posted an infographic to its website that showed teen smoking has gone down from 12.7 percent in 2009 to 8 percent in 2014. We believe it is important to understand how anti-smoking ads affect the viewer in a way that they want to quit, avoid, or prevent tobacco use.

Looking at other literature on the subject, the findings are similar across the board. Exposure to anti-drug ads decreases the chance of smoking in young adults which is shown in multiple studies done by the American government and independent researchers. The first few studies are on the Above the Influence campaign, a government sponsored anti-smoking multi-tiered drug prevention program founded in 2006. The campaign included multiple facets of anti-drug propaganda including commercials, print ads, and public speakers that target young adults in communities, as well as focused on drug education for parents.

The first study was conducted by the American Journal of Public Health in 2011 . The method of this study was surveys, the AJPH looked at various studies done by multiple agencies and compared geographic information along with the times the surveys were taken to pinpoint the groups who took the surveys and what media messages those groups would have seen. Then, they cross-examined the findings.

“Ours was the first study to evaluate the behavioral effects of Above the Influence, the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign’s ongoing phase 2, on adolescent marijuana use. We used the campaign’s targeted ratings points (TRPs; a measure of exposure potential) by media market to examine adolescent exposure, independent survey data from the Monitoring the Future (MTF) study to examine youth outcomes, and empirical methods used in other evaluations of antismoking media campaigns. Because previous research suggested that media campaign effects might be contingent on grade or gender, we also explored differences between these subgroups. MTF is a cross-sectional, school-based survey of drug, alcohol, and tobacco-related outcomes for adolescents in the United States. It is administered annually between January and June. We obtained a restricted-access version of data from the 2006 to 2008 MTF surveys (n = 130 245) that included information on the month and year of survey administration and the location (zip code) of each school. We used school zip codes to match each respondent to a media market. Our primary outcome measure in MTF was an indicator equal to 1 if the adolescent reported using marijuana in the past month. We also examined lifetime marijuana use to assess whether antidrug advertising was associated with delayed initiation, and we examined past-month alcohol use as an outcome that was presumably not directly affected by antidrug advertising. MTF also measures standard demographic and family characteristics for each respondent, including race and parental education, which we included as controls in our multivariate models.”

The second study focuses on autonomy and aspirations in relation to marijuana use, or non-use, and looks again at the Above the Influence campaign and its effects on American adolescents. The study was conducted by Michael Slater of Ohio State University in 2012, and was done with an experiment by exposing four groups of ten schools to differing conditions, while all were exposed to the Above the Influence campaign.

“The study design was a randomized community and school trial with four conditions. Ten communities were randomly assigned to receive the “Be Under Your Own Influence” community-media intervention, which involved a 1-day community-readiness training including training in developing local media materials and working with local press, provision of media materials including posters, banners, and brochures intended to be used in community settings such as stores, libraries, and recreation centers, and localized press releases about prevention topics, and periodic follow-up. Ten communities did not receive these community-level trainings or materials.

Within each of the 20 communities, two middle schools were recruited and randomized to receive or not receive in-school media including a series of posters for display within the school…All materials emphasized the link of substance non-use to achieving personal autonomy and aspirations and displayed the campaign slogan “Be Under Your Own Influence.”

To summarize the four experimental conditions: Ten schools were in communities receiving both the community intervention and the in-school media materials, 10 schools received the community intervention without the in-school media, 10 schools received the in-school media and no community intervention, and 10 schools served as controls, receiving no intervention.”

The third study focuses on the actual productiveness of the Above the Influence campaigns via mall intercept study. It was published in the Journal of Drug Education in 2011 . Mall intercepts, a method of study where people are randomly chosen in a mall or mall-type setting to give additional insight on a product or topic, were conducted in geographically diverse locations to reach a wide variety of consumers (50% female, 50% male, with varying ages and ethnicities). This was to monitor the impact of the Above the Influence media campaign across a large spectrum. The participants were given a survey to measure the level of impact the campaign had on their beliefs about tobacco use.

“The media campaign used a wide range of media outlets to disseminate the public health message including television, radio, newspapers, magazines, bill- boards, transit ads, bus shelters, movie theaters (trailers), video rentals, Internet sites, Channel One broadcasts conducted in schools, and other venues. To capture these various outlets, four dichotomously coded “yes/no” items were summed to create a unit-weighted measure of general media campaign awareness. The items were identical to those used in the in-home computer-assisted household survey (NSPY) and tapped “brand” awareness, asking youth if they remember seeing any anti-drug advertising, that specifically mentions not acceding to peer pressures to use drugs, that mentions the “anti-drug,” or mentions “Above the Influence” (range 0 to 4). Separately, a measure of specific recall was based on participants viewing still pictures from media campaign television ads presented on the computer monitor. Presentation order for five ads was randomized and respon- dents indicated whether they had seen the ad (“1”) or not (“0”). These were then summed to create a specific recall score (range 0 to 5). This measure comports with the specific recall-aided exposure measure used in the NSPY and allows us to make direct comparisons to that methodology (Orwin, Cadell, Chu, Kalton, Maklan, Morin, et al., 2006).

A single derived variable was used to indicate exposure. This measure was computed as the difference between the current Julian date when the mall intercept occurred and the date when the campaign became available to the general public viewed as public service announcements, radio commercials, and so forth. This measure essentially captures how much of the campaign messages an individual could have potentially seen. While there is some imprecision in this measure, it is useful to control for time-varying individual differences in viewing time frames in a cross-sectional model. Failure to include such a measure would suppose that all exposure was equal and subject to a monotonic dose-response relationship.”

There were also many studies done on another campaign named “truth” (lowercase) founded by the American Legacy Foundation in 2000. Truth uses negative advertising, which is a stark contrast to Above the Influence which utilized positive reinforcements to turning away drug use as a young adult. The Truth campaign featured ads such as the “body bag” PSA which featured young adults placing 1,200 body bags in front of a nondescript tobacco company and asking if they had ever seen what 1,200 dead people looked like. This sparked a trend of negative ads run to deter young adults from smoking tobacco such as the Meth Project which featured ads depicting meth users in their worst forms, skinny and sickly people with sores on their faces from what we can only guess is extensive meth use.

In a study conducted by the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of California in 2008 , researchers attempted to discover the effectiveness of negative advertising and how it forces tobacco companies to combat the campaigns via the medium of the truth campaigns.

“Using previously established techniques for systematically searching tobacco documents archives [21], we began with initial search terms such as organizational names (e.g. ‘American Legacy Foundation’) and references to media campaigns (“truth”). Searches were expanded with a snowball strategy using contextual information from initial searches to identify additional search terms and relevant documents, including names of individuals and organizations, date ranges, places and reference (Bates) numbers. Over 1200 internal tobacco industry documents pertaining to post-MSA media campaigns were identified and screened for relevance. Many of the initial documents we found were copies of contemporaneous public information such as press releases; these were frequently duplicative or irrelevant to our analysis. We drew on approximately 150 documents, dated 2000–04, to prepare this paper. Our interpretative data analysis involved reviewing the documents and transcripts to identify recurring themes and corporate positions, which we analyzed through the lens of studies of public health and political advocacy based on both experimental and survey data. We also reviewed secondary data sources for corroborating information about media campaigns including newspaper and journal articles, accessed via LexisNexis and PubMed, and through Internet searches using Google.”

Most results of all previous studies listed were positive, meaning there was a correlation between use of the campaigns and deterrence of tobacco use in young adults. The main gap we wish to fill is looking at this through a social learning theory lens, as well as looking at a comparison between the results of the truth campaign and the Above the Influence campaign. It’s necessary to look at this with social learning theory because social media is omnipresent in young adult’s lives, and that age is when the habit is typically picked up. Young adults’ minds are also still developing and the theory is that young adults are maybe picking up these habits by mimicking their peers.


We utilized social learning theory throughout our research. Social learning theory states that people learn through observation, imitation, and reinforcement. Because many of the ads and campaigns against smoking show the negative effects it can have on both a person’s physical health and personal life, social learning theory can explain how the observation and reinforcement of those images influence viewers to avoid tobacco use.

Social learning theory is a theory developed by Albert Bandura and demonstrated through his widely renowned “Bobo Doll Experiment” which showed that children were more likely to respond positively when shown negative consequences via video versus live performances. This translates to anti-smoking media versus seeing the negative effects of tobacco in real life for young adults.

Social learning theory is often used to demonstrate how observation of certain media messages resonates with and affects the viewer. For example, a 2008 study done by Robin L. Nabi and Shannon Clark posted in the Journal of Communication explores the resonance of negatively reinforced behaviors shown on television programs and if they actually affect the viewer’s behavior via social learning theory. Surveys were given to regular television program consumers asking about their predicted feelings about the outcomes of main characters on television shows, finding that the majority of people believe that the main character of a series will not be subjected to any long-term negative consequences per their previous experiences with television programs.

“Sixty undergraduates at University of California, Santa Barbara completed a survey in June 2007, after the season finales of the most recent TV season had aired, but before the new season’s premieres. They were first asked to think about the main characters in fictional TV series generally and to indicate on 1 (not at all likely) to 7 (extremely likely) scales how likely the main character is to suffer long-term con- sequences for their actions, bounce back quickly from adversity, survive seemingly impossible situations, die if stricken with an illness, be killed in a threaten- ing situation, and experience a happy ending. We then presented very brief, one- sentence descriptions of the cliff-hangers of several popular American TV evening programs (Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy, Lost, Heroes, and CSI). We asked how likely (on 1–7 scales) the featured character was to experience a particular outcome that was either positive (e.g., survive a suicide attempt) or negative (e.g., die from cancer). We then asked in an open-ended form, why they thought that. Each open-ended response was coded for whether or not it included the notion that bad things do not happen to main characters or main characters are necessary to keep the show interesting. An undergraduate coder blind to the purposes of the study coded the open-ended responses. A reliability check with 10% of the surveys coded by a second coder indicated sufficient reliability (Cohen’s k = .84). The survey concluded with measures of viewing frequency of the featured programs, age (M = 21.77, SD = 1.75), gender (91% female), year in school (69% seniors), and race (67% White).”

The research questions we would like to explore in this study are: RQ1) Does exposure to anti-smoking advertisements lead someone to be less inclined to use tobacco? RQ2) Does exposure to anti-smoking advertisements lead someone to quit smoking altogether?

The research method we will be using in this study is an experiment. To our knowledge in the extent of our research, there haven’t been studies using an experiment testing social learning theory in the context of the effect of anti-tobacco ads. This is another way we believe that we can fill the gap in studies about this topic by using a research method that to the best of our knowledge has not been tested before.

For our experiment, we plan to gather information from two groups of a random sampling of people. Group A will watch a collection of ads from Above the Influence and Group B will watch a collection of ads from truth. After both groups have completed watching the ads, they will be asked a series of questions about the impact the messages of the ads had on their beliefs about tobacco use. These questions will start off asking about demographic data such as age, gender, ethnicity, and other relevant information. Then the questions will go into specifics on the attitudes of the respondents after watching the ads. This set of questions will be phrased in such a way that the respondent will need to think about their feelings and emotions that are tied to smoking tobacco such as: “How did you feel about tobacco before watching these ads?” “How do you feel about your family members smoking tobacco?” “How do you feel about your peers smoking tobacco?” “How do you feel about smoking tobacco yourself?” These emotion related questions will help to gauge how our respondents are feeling about the anti-smoking ads.

The next set of questions will be more specific to the ads that they watched. While Above the Influence ads are more positive and motivational, truth ads are grittier and unsettling. The questions will reflect these differences. For the Above the Influence group, we will ask the participants to rate on a scale of 1-5 how they feel about smoking tobacco, 1 being would never do it, 5 being will do it regularly. Then we will ask how motivated they feel to encourage their peers not to smoke, also on a 1-5 scale with 1 being not motivated and 5 being very motivated. For the truth group, we will word the questions differently. We’ll ask the participants to rate on a scale of 1-5 how attractive they think smoking tobacco is, 1 being very unattractive and 5 being very attractive. The second question will be on a 1-5 scale how encouraged they feel from smoking tobacco, 1 being completely discouraged and 5 being extremely encouraged.

Considering that most of the ads against tobacco use today are reaching out to younger audiences, we believe that our best audience to study would be the younger generation as well. As most people start smoking as teenagers and before the age of 26, our best demographic would be teens and young adults aged 13 to 26, especially those currently attending high school or college. For this reason, we would like to take a sampling of 100 students (half from universities in the Bloomington-Normal area and half from high schools in the Bloomington-Normal area) to split into the two experiment groups to conduct the study from. We would like a mix of both smokers and non-smokers to get both opinions.

The specific media texts we will be looking at are the commercial advertisements for the Above the Influence and truth anti-tobacco campaigns. These ads focus on negative reinforcement to persuade people to either avoid starting the habit or to quit if the viewer has already begun smoking tobacco. The most recent campaign from truth is a music video titled “Left Swipe Dat.” Based off of the popular dating app Tinder where you are shown pictures from singles in your area and swipe right to match with them and left if you are not interested, the music video encourages people to swipe left if the person is smoking in their pictures, the underlying meaning to not get involved in relationships with people who smoke tobacco. The video is interesting due to its focus on non-smokers instead of smokers.

We hope to discover if people find these ads dissuading from smoking tobacco and if they find the negative reinforcement from the ads makes an impact on their beliefs about tobacco use. These ads take an interesting stance as many of them focus on the non-smoker and their duties to end tobacco use, as well as the extreme side effects that can result from prolonged tobacco use. We aim with this study to discover if these tactics resonate positively or negatively with the audience.


What we would expect from the study were we able to conduct it would be that people would have stronger reactions to Above the Influence rather than truth. By stronger, we mean the Above the Influence ads would be more effective at dissuading people from tobacco use. While the truth ads are aimed at younger audiences, they focus a lot on hype and negative views of current smokers, which we believe some would react negatively to in the sense that it would not dissuade them from smoking as much as the Above the Influence ads which show extreme cases of side effects of prolonged tobacco use (eg. stomas, cancer, loss of limbs and teeth, death, etc.) which severely impacts quality of life or even ends it. While we believe that the Above the Influence campaigns would have more of an effect, we believe that both campaigns would be effective in dissuading people to some degree from tobacco use. As far as current smokers who participated in the study go, while we believe some would be more inclined to end the habit after viewing the ads, we also take into account the idea of over-exposure of the ads to smokers where they will be so used to the messages they see in the ads, that it will have little to no effect on their current smoking habit.

The study we would do would help us to understand the impact of anti-tobacco ads such as Above the Influence and truth, which then gives us a better understanding of what the media can do to improve its efforts. This is also a relevant study considering how prevalent anti-tobacco ads are in our culture. Regardless of the channel, website, or newspaper you’re reading, there are anti-drug ads placed everywhere.

Smoking rates in young adults have gone down drastically in the past decade alone, and it is important to understand why that has happened, and if media efforts to curb the appeal have anything to do with it. We believe our study could help in this understanding.

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GradesFixer. (2019, January, 28) The Role of Anti-Smoking Ads in the Formulation of the Desire to Quit in Viewers. Retrived April 2, 2020, from
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