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How would I re-write tobacco warning messages

The sole purpose of texts and warnings on cigarette packages is to reduce the number people who buy cigarettes, or in other words the number of smokers. We all know these warnings: “Smoking kills”, “smoking causes cancer”, “smoking can damage your fetus” and I recently even saw “smoking increases the risk of becoming blind”. What is wrong with all these warnings? I am surprised if they work at all! Have people ever lit up a cigarette and thought “I believe this will make me more healthy in the long run”, or “I believe this will prevent me from having cancer”? If that was the case, then these warnings would be reasonable! Then people would be like “Oh, it causes cancer? Well, then my only reason for smoking was wrong!” No! This is not what’s happening. People smoke one cigarette at a time for immediate gratification. And that’s the area in which one should be acting. “Smoking kills” or “smoking causes cancer” doesn’t mean anything for people! Let alone “smoking makes you blind”, have you ever met anyone who went blind because of smoking? I don’t know anyone. This is too abstract. Much more efficient would be write the following true things on a pack of cigarettes:

If you stop smoking, then…

  • your wounds heal faster,
  • your exercise performance goes up,
  • you save money,
  • you save time,
  • your blood pressure normalises,
  • you don’t have to excuse yourself and go out into -20C every two hours,
  • You can sit in an airplane for 8 hours with the only urges being peeing and pooping,
  • your breath doesn’t stink and people want to kiss you more,
  • you actually face your fear and anxiety and deal with them in an honest way instead of distracting yourself with a cigarette.
  • you stop feeling guilt about not being able to stop smoking.
  • you acquire an invaluable experience of exerting will-power and self-discipline.

If you want to hire me to help you design efficient tobacco packaging warning messages, contact me and we can negotiate. 😛

BTW here is my story of how I quit smoking (exactly) two years ago.

I originally wrote this here: “I know this has nothing to do with creative career, art and science, but hey, this is my blog”, but then I realised that there is a direct connection with success in academic and creative world! I am now in the midst of writing lots and lots of grant applications… Here is the analogy. When you have a great noble goal in mind (in the case of smoking, it is “We want the society to be healthier”, in the case of research grants it could be “I want to understand consciousness”) and you need people to help you with it (in case of smoking you want people to stop smoking and in case of grants… well, you want the grants), then you shouldn’t necessarily appeal to the noble goals, because they might not resonate with those who are at the other end! It doesn’t mean that you should be lying, or be dishonest. It means that you should understand what serves those on whom your success depends (in case of smoking: smokers, in case of grants: those who have the money). Foundations who give money, want to give money to researchers, that’s why they exist.  Your job is to appeal to their (not yours) interests when you are persuading them to give you money. Here is a quick table where I build the analogy:

  • Applying for grants
  • Very abstract, Bad
  • More concrete, Better
  • Immediate results, Best
  • Applying for grants
  • “I want to study consciousness”
  • “My research can help develop artificial intelligence”
  • “The immediate consequences of my research are in the field of automatic skin cancer recognition from picture data”
  • Persuading people to smoke less
  • “Smoker’s die on average younger”
  • “If you stop smoking, you save money”
  • “Make your airplane trips enjoyable again”, “Make your wounds heal faster”
    “Increase your cardio performance by 20% within 2 weeks”
Make a noise:
5 replies
  1. Dom
    Dom says:

    Addressing the desire for immediate results sounds like a promising approach. There is a tradeoff, though, because graphic images of death and disease have a greater emotional impact than, say, images of airplane trips or cardio performance. However, the letter may be more relatable, at least for people who don’t have friends or relatives who died of the diseases shown in the pictures.

    Then again, those graphic images are likely to trigger a stress response, and smokers cope with increased stress by, well, smoking more. Thus, in addition to your explicit emphasis on immediacy, your implicit emphasis on positivity (in contrast to death and disease) could be beneficial as well.

    A further aspect might be emotionality. By eliciting strong emotions, graphic images may prime irrational thinking patterns, which facilitate more emotional decision-making that makes people more likely to smoke. Therefore, your approach could be more beneficial than the current one especially if it only uses text, particularly if the text puts people into a more abstract mind space. But I guess this would depend a lot on individual personality types as well.

    In sum, I see four hypothetical benefits of your suggestion to use a text like “Increase your cardio performance by 20% within 2 weeks”: (1) higher relatability of results, (2) greater immediacy of results (your main point), (3) smaller stress response due to positivity of results, and (4) more rational decision-making due to abstract nature of results. Then again, these benefits may be outweighed by the mere fact that a graphic picture will have a greater overall impact than a less fatal, less negative, less emotional text.

    In any case, all those hypotheses are easily testable in experimental studies. Have you looked into the relevant research?

    • Vadim
      Vadim says:

      Yeah, you right that the emotional impact of desease-pics is great. In psychological research, the guru of psychological influence is of course Robert Cialdini. I don’t recall him talking about immediacy, but relatability is a constant theme in his research and writing. For example his principles of social proof and reciprocity are embodiments of that. What comes to immediacy, this is not a scientific argument, but I believe Internet-marketers have figured it out. If they could make even a little bit more money with “long-term-emotional-impact” than with “take-immediate-action-now”, then they would be doing it. However, Internet-marketers seem to be univocal in trying to appeal to our immediate needs rather than long-term needs no matter how strong they would be. In fact, now that I think about it, in reinforcement learning models the reward is always assumed to diminish exponentially with how far in the future it is. This, I recall, is based not only on having successful AI, but also on studies with rats. It makes sense, because distant future is always less certain than immediate future, so putting a lot of weight on distant rewards is irrational, while putting a lot of weight on immediate reward makes sense, if only because they are more predictable.

      • Dom
        Dom says:

        Yes, this is what I don’t like about the popular interpretation of hyperbolic discounting as proof that humans are inherently irrational. It’s not necessarily irrational to prefer $100 now over $120 in two months if one takes into account that the certainty of receiving the money may decrease over time, because the longer one has to wait, the higher the probability that something happens in the meanwhile that thwarts the transaction.

        • Dom
          Dom says:

          In addition, there’s the cost of cognitive load associated with thinking about somebody owing you money. But I realize that I’m getting too off-topic here…


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