If you go to Belgium as a smoker, it hits you immediately: the warnings on cigarette packets often include very unpleasant images. Eight years’ ago, David Byrne, member of the European Commission, asked all the European member states to enforce the placing of shocking warnings pointing to the potentially harmful consequences of smoking on cigarette packets. University of Groningen professor Carel Jansen, expert in the field of instructive and persuasive communication, agrees with Byrne’s call, if a number of important conditions are met when the measure is implemented. ‘In my opinion, nobody needs to put frightening messages on cigarette packets as such. But if you’re going to do it, you must do it properly and seriously.’
Jansen: ‘I am mainly interested in the question: under what conditions does such a frightening image work and under what conditions does it not work? Frightening warnings that are not properly thought through may even have a negative effect such that the message has a contrary result.’
You should primarily see the warnings on cigarette packets as a preventative tool, said Jansen. ‘It is just one of the tools to help smokers stop smoking. What you then primarily do is change the subjective norm of the smoker’s social environment. Non-smokers within the social environment of the smoker see the warnings and exert pressure on the smoker to stop, whether consciously or not. But the probability of helping smokers to quit their addiction with such a warning is limited.’
Jansen: ‘A lot still has to be researched as far as the effects of health communication are concerned. We already have clear indications that messages with a small mystery, which we are used to receiving in many advertising messages, do not work well. For example, the image suggested by the European Union of a cigarette with long drooping cigarette ash, with under this the text that smoking can cause impotency. Or the EU warning with a woman behind an empty pram combined with the text that smoking reduces fertility. These messages were perhaps cleverly put together, but research has shown that they do not work as well as other messages that use hard, confronting illustrations. These hard warnings are also some of the images that are promoted by the EU.’
The images on cigarette packets must primarily create fear. Jansen: ‘People must be really scared by what they read or see. And very importantly: people must also then have the idea that they themselves are capable of taking adequate measures. Otherwise they switch off to the message.’ This was, for example, a problem when educating people about HIV in Africa. ‘Many women are now very afraid of HIV, but they also know that they are unable to make their partners wear a condom. These women experience a serious threat, but they also know that they have no control over the solution. They then find themselves in the fear control modus: they deny the risk and stick their heads in the sand. This is exactly the opposite of what you want to achieve as an information officer.’
Besides a frightening message, cigarette packets must also have extra information printed on them that can help people who want to stop smoking to indeed do so. ‘This puts them in the danger control modus and it gives them the idea: I am going to try and avert the threatened harmful effects of smoking. You can only achieve this effect with information which people think they can really use. For example, a message in which smokers are referred to a website where they can get help to stop smoking in the form of a weight watchers approach, and, for example, information on the percentage of smokers who have already stopped smoking with this approach.’
Besides fear, the images on cigarette packets must also achieve other effects, such as revulsion and amazement. Jansen: ‘A shock effect is very important. The images must be really in your face. In a lot of fear appeal studies the role of revulsion was not looked at, but where its role was examined, revulsion appeared to be important. Just like the amazement effect. After seeing an image for the thousandth time it loses its effect. New images must therefore be used.’
If these conditions are not satisfied, using Dutch warning messages on cigarette packets is pointless, said Jansen. ‘If you do not offer people a solution or if the images are not frightening enough, then you are doing it purely for show.’
Prof. Carel Jansen (1952) is Professor of Communication and Information Sciences in Groningen. He recently held an inaugural lecture ‘Prevention is better. On the road to more effective text in health communication’
(in Dutch) . Since 2002, Jansen has also been professor by special appointment at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. He has published more than 150 articles on his scientific work in Dutch and international publications and journals and is co-author of Leren Communiceren, Professioneel communiceren (Learning to Communicate, Professional Communication), the Handleidingenwijzer (Manual Guide) and the Formulierenwijzer (Form Guide). Jansen is one of the initiators of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research theme programme Begrijpelijke Taal (Understandable Language).
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