The headline on msnbc.com was “These cigarette packs could scare you into quitting.” A new law signed in June by President Obama requires cigarette companies to post large, visual warnings on every pack. The FDA intends to use curt verbiage alongside the new images of corpses, cancer patients, and diseased lungs and teeth as part of their repertoire to scare potential smokers from starting as well as encourage established smokers to think twice.
The new visual warnings are a step in the right direction. Visual learning is a cornerstone of the education system in general. As much as 60% of every classroom is occupied by visual thinkers and as a result, this new initiative aims at what could be considered a majority of the consumer public.
A related study published in the October 2010 issue of the Journal of Consumer Psychology looked at food packaging and its effect on overeaters. Their results showed that people ate more food from packages with many items pictured on it than from packages with few items pictured on it, illustrating the power of visual impulses and the depth to which they drive our consumption.
I give the FDA credit for realizing that the battle lines need to be redrawn in the war on smoking. However, there are many who believe the FDA is implementing this new strategy incorrectly. A recent paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology suggests a warning label stressing death and mortality could, in fact, be counterproductive. The researchers found that death-related warnings led to more positive attitudes toward cigarette use in people who saw smoking as cool, sexy, and essential to their self-esteem. Interestingly enough these same people had the opposite reaction to warnings that smoking makes one less attractive.
With this in mind, perhaps the FDA would be better served with images that steered clear of death and instead, employed images of ugliness. Even comedian Lewis Black agreed during his segment on The Daily Show “Back in Black” by saying “if you really want to keep them (children) from lighting up, launch a pro-smoking campaign that links cigarettes with virginity.” As ridiculous as this sounds, it makes the point that the FDA seems to be missing.
While I commend the FDA for realizing they need to be more visual in their attempt to warn consumers against the dangers of smoking, I would suggest they think outside the box when it comes to the substance of these new warnings.