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“Lady Nicotine is not a good girlfriend”

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Posted June 4, 2014
Credit: jmorgansmith via printmypack.com (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Credit: jmorgansmith via printmypack.com (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Health warning ads is a widely used preventative method worldwide – intimidating prints can be found all over cigarette packets, alcohol advertisements, and they are a central part of any health-problem prevention campaign. But are the commonly used and often threatening messages effective enough to influence the change?

Research shows that negative messages, which are used for common purposes, such as to put off potential smokers, are often overlooked by consumers altogether. Moreover, instead of promoting a healthy message, “cancer” and “mortality” type prints influence many to act defensively instead. All that can be corrected by humor – a recent study in Health Communication claims funny health ads attract individuals’ attention better, promote a lasting memory of the message and convinces consumers much more so than an a plain threat would.

Humorous messages draw attention better that dull warnings

The time spent by the participants on each message was recorded to reveal a significant increase in the viewing time of “witty” ads. The extra time might be needed to understand the message, which eventually makes you laugh. Regardless of the cause, however, increased attention towards the preventative warning, as well as any affective response it may prompt, could help promote the message that much more efficiently. The study looked firstly at the time spent on analyzing individual messages. The participants were asked to look at 48 ads about alcohol consumption, smoking and obesity. Half of these were humorous (e.g. “Drinking can cause memory loss. Or worse, memory loss.”), the rest – regular warning messages (e.g. “Alcohol is responsible for around 10,000 cancer deaths.”).

Intimidating ads are less memorable and not as convincing

In the second set of tests, the participants were asked to rate all the messages according to how convincing they are at promoting healthy lifestyle choices. After individual ads appeared on the screen, each was rated in a 5-point scale (e.g., –2 = not at all convincing, +2 = very convincing).

The humorous messages were universally deemed as more convincing across all three health topics. Interestingly, no effects were observed for gender either. Regardless of the fact that males and females sometimes respond to humor differently, the three selected health topics (alcohol, tobacco and obesity) seemed to carry equal weight for both sexes.

Credit: Grimace84 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Credit: Grimace84 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The researchers also explored, which health messages are stored in our memory better. With a week-long delay, the participants were asked to look at the same humorous and serious ads, their paraphrased versions (e.g. “Consuming nicotine is not a routine” was reworded as “Lady Nicotine is not a good girlfriend”) and some completely new additions. These were then labelled as “seen before” and “not seen before”.

The original and paraphrased humorous ads were recognized much better than their non-humorous counterparts. As such, the participants not only took the point home, but kept it there – the joke played a major part in the long-term memory of the message.

More time to process the joke, less time to argue

The authors advocate that increased recognition of humorous ads lies in the extra viewing and processing time associated with these “mixed” messages, as compared to their dull variants. Humorous tone might also act as a relaxing factor when talking about otherwise stressful health topics.

Overly tense and purely negative ads are believed to encourage defensive behavior in consumers. In contrast, the same message wrapped in a joke should promote a positive attitude towards the problem, and leave less space to argue. Thus, instead of pushing an overly unpleasant idea, mixed feelings evoked by humor create a memorable message, which has a better chance to convince.

Story by Egle Marija Ramanauskaite

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