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.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Smoking's disgusting...

This is a recent anti-smoking advert that I witnessed whilst watching something on All4. It depicts a father rolling, and then smoking a cigarette made out of a disgusting substance, referred to as 'rotting flesh'. The disgust I felt while watching this advert was intense and, in that instant, stopped me from ever wanting to smoke. Mine-and anyone else's- reaction is largely unsurprising however. This is because the advert uses disgust deliberately. In fact, it uses both disgust, and a fear appeal to persuade smokers to quit.

To those of whom a ‘fear appeal’ is a new term, it is a persuasion tactic that threatens the viewer with the negative consequences of doing something- in this case smoking (Fitzsimons, Morales, & Wu, 2012). In this advert, a fear appeal is achieved by using a substance reminiscent of the type of by-product smoking would leave in your body. Disgust is also used within this advert, as the substance the father rolls is, again, an example of the ‘rotting flesh’ (as the voice-over so nicely puts it) that resides in smokers’ bodies. When he licks the ‘rotting flesh’ the disgust felt as a viewer is quite intense. This has the impact of forcing smokers to face the horrifying consequences of their actions, thus enhancing the fear appeal’s effects, and hopefully persuading smokers to give up.

A study exploring the use of disgust and fear appeals to persuade behaviour was carried out by Fitzsimons, Morales, and Wu (2012). In this study, 155 students witnessed an advertisement from the Montana Meth Project, aimed at targeting meth-amphetamine use. Participants viewed either a neutral ad, an ad using only a fear appeal, or an ad using both a fear appeal with disgust. Participants were then asked a number of questions about the different adverts. 


Regarding the likelihood that participants would use illegal drugs in future, Fitzsimons, et al. (2012) found that the advert using both a fear appeal with disgust was the most persuasive. To visually illustrate this, below is a bar chart demonstrating the results regarding participants' likelihood to take illegal drugs in future...

Additionally, participants that watched the disgusting advert were more likely to change their behaviour quicker than participants watching the other ads. This study is also a good one as, regarding alternate explanations, Fitzsimons, et al. (2012) even went so far as to rule out the possibility that the advert using disgust was only more persuasive because of its vividness!
The anti-smoking advert above is therefore an example of persuasion through use of a fear appeal with disgust. The research by Fitzsimons, et al. (2012) illustrates that this tactic can be effective in changing behaviour. So, watch the ad and feel disgusted!


Fitzsimons, G. J., Morales, A. C., & Wu, E. C. (2012). How disgust enhances the effectiveness of fear appeals. Journal of Marketing Research, 49, 383-39

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