Disturbing images and threatening messages on cigarette packages may be ineffective at communicating the desired message that smoking is unhealthy, and instead trigger strong defense reactions from viewers, a new research has found.
Glenn Leshner, Paul Bolls and Kevin Wise, co-directors of the Psychological Research on Information and Media Effects (PRIME) Lab at the University of Missouri School of Journalism found that when viewers saw a combination of threatening and disgusting television public service announcements (PSAs), they tended to withdraw mental resources from processing the messages while simultaneously reducing the intensity of their emotional responses.
Leshner says that these types of images could possibly have a “boomerang effect,” meaning the defensive reactions could be so strong that they cause viewers to stop processing the messages in the PSAs.
In their study, the researchers showed 49 participants anti-smoking television PSAs. Some PSAs included disgusting images and some did not. Further, some PSAs included an explicit health threat while others did not.
The researchers found the PSAs which 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, where defensive reactions were so strong that the participants unconsciously limited the mental resources they allocated to processing the messages.
They also had worse memories and a lower emotional responses when the threatening PSAs included disgusting images.
Leshner says that when a disgusting image is included in a threatening PSA, the ad becomes too noxious for the viewer.
The study was recently published in the Journal of Media Psychology.