This advert for VIPecigarretes was the most complained about advert of 2013, receiving over 150 complaints after it was first aired during I’m a celebrity. Aside from the clear sexual innuendos throughout, a major concern was that the advert was attempting to make smoking sexy, but were viewers right to be concerned?
In the early 20th century it was not socially acceptable for women to smoke at all, they could even be sent to prison for doing so in public areas. During the 1920’s cigarette companies realised the money they could make if they could get women smoking so they hired Edward Bernays. Known as the father of spin, he employed women to smoke in the 1929 Easter Sunday parade in New York with their “torches of freedom” whilst they were photographed by the media. As a result, sales of cigarettes to women tripled over the next five years. Bernays was very clear that he wanted the girls to be pretty but not too model-like. This is utilising the persuasive technique of social modelling which states that we are more influenced by an attractive messenger. For instance, students rated as more attractive were found to be more effective than unattractive students at convincing other students to sign a petition to remove meat from campus menus during breakfast and lunch (Chaiken, 1979). The women used in the VIPecigarette advert was certainly attractive suggesting that viewers were right to be concerned that history may be repeating itself and it may once again become attractive to take up smoking.
The strong sexual nature of the advert sticks to the age old principle that “sex sells”. Ferguson et al. (2010) found that both males and females had a better memory for adverts containing sexual content. They also found that participants were more likely to buy the item being advertised in sexual adverts.
|Figure 1: Data from Ferguson et al. (2010), mean responses for both memory tests and willingness to buy scales from participants who watched sexual or neutral adverts.|
So sex really does sell, but why does this work? According to the heuristic-systematic model of information processing (Chaiken, 1980) if targets are un-motivated to follow the message being expressed by the source then they will rely on processing short cuts (or heuristics). These heuristics mean that source variables such as attractiveness are more important than what is actually being said. Targets who are motivated to pay attention to what is being said will need stronger arguments to be convinced, this is known as the systematic processing route. The VIPecigarette advert was aired during advert breaks on a Saturday night, it seems unlikely that as people were winding down to watch I’m a celeb they were feeling motivated to pay attention to the adverts. It is fair to assume they were using the heuristic processing mode to reduce the amount of cognitive effort required before their big decision about who they should vote to do the next bush-tucker trial.
Chaiken, S. (1979). Communicator physical attractiveness and persuasion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37, 1387-1397.
Chaiken, S. (1980) Heuristic verses systematic information processing and the use of source versus message cues in persuasion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 752-766.
Ferguson, C. J., Cruz, A. M., Martinez, D., Rueda, S. M., & Ferguson, D. E. (2010). Violence and sex as advertising strategies in television commercials. European Psychologist, 15, 304-311.