Kids care about what their friends do and think—and communications experts say tapping into that concern may help public health officials design more effective antismoking campaigns targeting young people.
In a study published in the journal Communication Research (2007;34:407–432), researchers from the University of Georgia and the University of Wisconsin explore how peer relations influence adolescents' perceptions of antismoking messages in print, online, radio, and television media. They surveyed 1,687 kids in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade at 4 Wisconsin middle schools about how many such messages they and their peers are exposed to and how those messages influence their feelings about smoking and intentions to smoke.
Surprisingly, they found that the more kids were exposed to antismoking messages, the more likely they were to form favorable attitudes about smoking and a higher intention to smoke. That's exactly the opposite effect such campaigns are intended to have, of course, and a disappointing finding.
But lead study author Hye-Jin Paek, PhD, Assistant Professor at the University of Georgia's Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communications, says the study results reveal much more about what types of campaigns are likely to succeed at getting kids to quit or never start smoking.
The study found that while kids don't believe they themselves are influenced by antismoking messages, they do believe these messages influence their close friends (proximal peers)—and that presumption can influence them. This effect was seen both in kids classified as ever-smokers (current or former smokers and even those who had had only a single puff of a cigarette) and in never-smokers, but was stronger in the ever-smokers.
“For them [the ever-smokers], it's very important that we provide perceptions of peer norms and smoking norms that say ‘Your close friends and peers are not really smoking,’” explains Paek.
Doing so would make it more likely that these kids would respond in a positive way to antismoking campaigns.
Paek's study did not compare specific advertisements, but it cites Florida's late-1990s “truth” campaign as an example of a successful antismoking effort. The creators of that campaign researched their target audience of 12- to 17-year-olds carefully, she says, and discovered that teens don't want to hear preachy antismoking messages. So instead, the campaign tapped into youth rebellion and antiestablishment sentiment. They employed top-notch advertising professionals to help create edgy ads around a sustained theme—the “truth” as opposed to the deceptive practices of the tobacco industry that entice young people to smoke.
The campaign also used techniques other than advertising by getting teen activists involved in community efforts, enlisting the help of policy makers, and developing an in-school smoking prevention program.
“It wasn't just a media campaign,” Paek says. “It was a collaborative, integrated marketing effort.”
Collaborative efforts are key, agrees Thomas J. Glynn, PhD; Director, Cancer Science and Trends; and Director, International Cancer Control at the ACS.
“Media alone doesn't do the trick,” he says. “It needs to be combined with other tactics like increased taxes and promotion of smoke-free environments.”
One of the things that made such a massive effort possible was money: Florida had $200 million out of a $13 billion settlement with the tobacco industry at its disposal.
Adequate funding is one of the obstacles hampering the development of similarly successful campaigns, Paek says. Another is time; many antismoking campaigns simply are not sustained long enough to make an impact in today's media-soaked culture.
Money and time are 2 advantages the tobacco companies have over public health initiatives when it comes to advertising, says Glynn. Philip Morris, for instance, launched its advertising campaign encouraging parents to talk to their kids about not smoking in 1999.
Although long-lived, the tobacco company ads are not likely to convince kids not to smoke, says Glynn. By aiming the ads at parents and emphasizing that smoking is a choice that should only be made by adults, the ads appeal to young people's rebellious instincts, he explains.
“To many communications experts, the tobacco industry ads seem designed to encourage rather than discourage youth uptake of tobacco,” says Glynn.
Paek says those who develop antismoking campaigns should have realistic ideas about what these campaigns can accomplish and focus on long-term goals rather than on short-term effects, which are less likely.
“Media campaigns can be successful by changing those social norms slowly,” she says.
Public health officials must also do more to understand their target audience and strive to make better use of marketing concepts, she advises.
Glynn says to be effective, youth-directed ads should make it clear that smoking is not the norm among teenagers, use humor, and emphasize the immediate consequences of smoking—smelly clothes, yellow teeth, and bad breath—rather than the long-term consequences.
Public health officials can also tap into resources like parents and the medical community, Paek says.
“I've done a series of antismoking studies among adolescents, and I found that parental monitoring is indeed important,” says Paek. “And more important sometimes than media campaigns. It makes sense because parents are a more important socialization medium.”
Parents need to talk to their kids about not smoking, she says. Doctors also can talk to their young patients about not smoking, keeping in mind that peer influence is a strong motivator for teens who smoke.