Will a picture of an autopsy or a bloody skull persuade smokers to stop puffing away? Governments around the world are convinced more obscene and graphic warnings are necessary to scare smokers away from their cigarettes. However, these efforts seem far and away from decision triggers that psychologists like Robert Cialdini might suggest.

What’s next for cigarette warning labels? It seems warnings from the U.S. Surgeon General haven’t been all that effective, and now the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) needs to “tell the truth” about cigarettes with offensive pictures of blackened teeth and tracheotomy patients on death’s door. And it gets worse in other countries, where governments have taken to shock and awe tactics of showing a baby’s corpse lying in a pile of cigarettes or bloody skulls to show that cigarettes may cause strokes.

These techniques add up to a bunch of hogwash, says Financial Times columnist Christopher Caldwell. He says these warning labels won’t educate anyone, and in fact, will do the opposite and scare people. “The pictures (on the cigarettes) are obscene and exploitative,” he says. “They show naked, vulnerable people to whom violence has been done.”

A quick review of Robert Cialdini’s Principles of Influence seems to support Caldwell’s points. When trying to gain compliance, Cialdini suggests using decision triggers of reciprocity, consistency, social proof, liking, scarcity and authority. While not all of these decision triggers may apply to the efforts of getting smokers to quit, there are definitely some that could work.

Take for example the principle of social proof. Cialdini writes in Influence that “social proof can be used to stimulate a person’s compliance with a request by informing the person that many other individuals are or have been complying with it.” So in this instance, instead of scare tactics, what if messaging was devised around how 80% of U.S. citizens don’t smoke? Or something along the lines of, “Just about everyone has quit smoking, you should too.”

The FT’s Christopher Caldwell worries that eventually these new scare images will lose their power to shock and then require even more graphic images. Are we traversing down a slippery slope? Marketers, weigh in, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Questions:

Are smokers “uneducated” about dangers of lighting up? Will these new shocking photos have their intended effect?

Caldwell argues that plenty of other things like sex and even driving could kill people. Do these products that support these activities deserve graphic warning labels, too?

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Paul Barsch directs services marketing programs for Teradata, the world's largest data warehousing and analytics company. Previously, Paul was marketing director for HP Enterprise Services $1.3 billion healthcare industry and a senior marketing manager at global consultancy, BearingPoint. Paul is a senior contributor to MarketingProfs, a frequent columnist for MarketingProfs DailyFix, and has published over fifteen articles in marketing, management, technology and healthcare publications. Paul earned his Bachelors of Science in Business Administration from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. He and his family reside in San Diego, CA.