Shock and Awe: FDA Takes Wrong Approach to Influence Smokers

Will a picture of an autopsy or a bloody skull persuade smokers to stop puffing away? Governments around the world are convinced more obscene and graphic warnings are necessary to scare smokers away from their cigarettes. However, these efforts seem far and away from decision triggers that psychologists like Robert Cialdini might suggest.

What’s next for cigarette warning labels? It seems warnings from the U.S. Surgeon General haven’t been all that effective, and now the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) needs to “tell the truth” about cigarettes with offensive pictures of blackened teeth and tracheotomy patients on death’s door. And it gets worse in other countries, where governments have taken to shock and awe tactics of showing a baby’s corpse lying in a pile of cigarettes or bloody skulls to show that cigarettes may cause strokes.

These techniques add up to a bunch of hogwash, says Financial Times columnist Christopher Caldwell. He says these warning labels won’t educate anyone, and in fact, will do the opposite and scare people. “The pictures (on the cigarettes) are obscene and exploitative,” he says. “They show naked, vulnerable people to whom violence has been done.”

A quick review of Robert Cialdini’s Principles of Influence seems to support Caldwell’s points. When trying to gain compliance, Cialdini suggests using decision triggers of reciprocity, consistency, social proof, liking, scarcity and authority. While not all of these decision triggers may apply to the efforts of getting smokers to quit, there are definitely some that could work.

Take for example the principle of social proof. Cialdini writes in Influence that “social proof can be used to stimulate a person’s compliance with a request by informing the person that many other individuals are or have been complying with it.” So in this instance, instead of scare tactics, what if messaging was devised around how 80% of U.S. citizens don’t smoke? Or something along the lines of, “Just about everyone has quit smoking, you should too.”

The FT’s Christopher Caldwell worries that eventually these new scare images will lose their power to shock and then require even more graphic images. Are we traversing down a slippery slope? Marketers, weigh in, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

• Are smokers “uneducated” about dangers of lighting up? Will these new shocking photos have their intended effect?
• Caldwell argues that plenty of other things like sex and even driving could kill people. Do these products that support these activities deserve graphic warning labels, too?



  1. • Smokers are educated.
    • “Life is a disease which leads to death”. Does life deserve warning sign?

    To influence smokers as decision-makers first understand why they smoke. Is that a physical act? Is it a symbol of maturity, wealth? Is it a medium of socialization? Is it psychological act – either for people who have nothing to do, or for people who are unable to interchange their activities during the day?
    Do smokers think that they, by doing an act of smoking, gain more now than lose in the future? Do they trust they will really lose then? Do they value their lives? Do they value lives of others?

    By scaring people with photos and other information society (or governments as representative of society) will cause tobacco companies’ competition on the matter of “inventing” less harmful cigarettes, and probably cause even more smokers, who are very educated (using the mass media as a source) what kills them less.

    • Eugeny, thank you for taking time to comment! I think your comment; “Do they value their lives? Do they value lives of others?” rings true for me. I’ve seen plenty of folks who know all the information, and have weighed the consequences, however they just don’t care. No amount of education is going to convince them otherwise. Do you think it’s self esteem issues?

      • That could be anything at the beginning, but at the end it is just a habit. Habit which is under individual’s control amid changing world. Something which is stable and is seen as a right.
        There’s a belief if one will take small portions of poison regularly, bigger one-time portions will make less harm. Same here – people start with one per day, end up with 20 per day or even more. The issue is how much is enough, and what is “optimal” daily portion of the poison. Having the dose is a right to “manage” health of the self, right to have a freedom to kill self.

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