Study: Anti-smoking ads can backfire

Sept. 21, 2011 at 11:24 PM
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COLUMBIA, Mo., Sept. 21 (UPI) -- Using a combination of disturbing images and threatening messages to prevent smoking is not effective and could backfire, U.S. researchers said.

Paul Bolls, co-director of the Psychological Research on Information and Media Effects laboratory and of University of Missouri School of Journalism, and colleagues Glenn Leshner, Paul Bolls and Kevin Wise showed viewers a combination of threatening and disgusting television public service announcements.

The disgusting television PSAs caused viewers to experience the beginnings of strong defensive reactions.

Leshner said these types of images could have a "boomerang effect," meaning the defensive reactions could be so strong they cause viewers to stop processing the messages in the PSAs.

The researchers showed 49 participants anti-smoking PSAs -- some included disgusting images and some did not. Some PSAs included an explicit health threat, others did not, the researchers said.

The study, published in the Journal of Media Psychology, found the PSAs that included either a threatening message or a disgusting image resulted in greater attention, better memory and a heightened emotional response. However, PSAs that included both threatening and disgusting images caused participants to have defensive responses, some so strong the participants unconsciously limited the mental resources they allocated to processing the messages, the study said.

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