Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

"If you smoke, I smoke."

This NHS advert is from the "If you smoke, I smoke" campaign, raising the issue of secondhand smoke and its health effects on children. Parents believe that opening a door/window or moving to another room in the house prevents second hand smoke reaching their children. This is not the case as harmful cigarette smoke will blow back inside, and since more than 80% of second hand smoke is odourless and invisible, parents are unlikely to notice this and have no control over it. In this advert it shows a very young child 'naturally' exhaling harmful cigarette smoke. This is an effective tactic as although smokers seem ok with the fact they are harming themselves (as they choose to continue the habit) it would worry them to believe they are harming helpless children who haven’t chosen to breathe in their cigarette smoke. This advert uses the persuasive techniques of guilt and tact altercast.

A smoking parent who views this advert may feel guilty as they’re exposing their child/children to this invisible harmful smoke. This then may induce within the parent a desire to right their wrongs and repair their self-image (who wants to be the parent that knowingly harms their child?). Carlsmith and Gross (1969) conducted a study where participants (assigned the role of teacher) were made to believe they were giving electric shocks to the learner (a confederate) if they gave a wrong answer. Believing they had administered electric shocks, participants felt guilty. This feeling of guilt lead these participants to be more compliant (relative to the controls) and perform a pro-social action when they were asked to do so by the person they were lead to believe they had shocked, and interestingly also by someone who knew nothing about the electric shocks. An explanation for this compliance is that the guilty participant wanted to alleviate their feelings of guilt and/or attempt to repair their self-image.

The other persuasive tactic used in this advert is tact altercast. The advert takes on the role of the baby, as if it is talking directly to the viewer/parent. A child is more effective at arguing that secondhand smoke is harmful (a protection based message). This is because using a child places the viewer in the role of “protector”, making them feel responsible for the welfare of the child, thus promoting smoke free homes. This was found to be the case in Pratkanis and Gliner's (2004-2005) study. On arrival participants were handed an 8 page booklet that contained persuasive materials. Content of this booklet depended on which condition participants were in, which were randomly assigned in a 2x2 design (Source: Child vs. Expert x Message: Protective vs. Technical). The second page asked the participants to imagine either a young child or a man appearing on TV, while the third page had either a photo of a young girl or a distinguishing looking man. The fourth page either had a message about the possibility of the existence of a tenth planet in our solar system (technical theme) or about nuclear disarmament (protective theme). The rest of the booklet asked participants about the various aspects of the communicator and message.

Figure 1 below shows the mean message effectiveness for each level of message and source. They found that a child is more effective at arguing for nuclear disarmament (a protection based message), while an expert is more effective arguing for the existence of a tenth planet (a technical based message).

 Figure 1: Mean message effectiveness as a function of source and message treatments

What we can take away from this is that the use of a child has the potential to be very persuasive at changing the behaviour of the viewer, especially if they are a parent themselves. The love a parent has for their child is very strong so it makes sense they would try their best to keep their child away from harm, which may include harmful cigarette smoke.


Carlsmith, J.M., & Gross, A.E. (1969). Some effects of guilt on compliance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 11, 232- 239.

Pratkanis, A.R., & Gliner, M.D. (2004-2005). And when shall a little child lead them? Evidence for an altercasting theory of source credibility. Current Psychology, 23, 279-304.

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