Strangers’ ‘yuck’ face may deter some smokers

Cigarette packaging prototypes with faces showing disgust have an impact on some smokers who not necessarily deterred by graphic health warnings.

Dire warnings of rotting teeth, cancer and sudden infant death are emblazoned on tobacco packaging as deterrents to smoking. Yet, smokers continue to light up.

So, what would happen if packaging could also trigger guilt, shame or embarrassment?

A new Western-led study suggests that using negative social cues to provoke self‐consciousness about smoking might be more effective for some people than graphic health warnings.

Packaging has become an important vehicle to convey anti-smoking messages, but most of them fear‐based health appeals.


However, new packaging prototypes that show a face looking disdainfully at the smoker are enough to trigger self-consciousness, and may discourage them from continuing the habit, or from starting it in the first place, said King’s University College professor Jennifer Jeffrey of the School of Management, Economics and Mathematics.

“Most tobacco research suggests fear-based appeals are effective at reducing smoking, especially when graphic images are included as part of the warning,” said Jeffrey who, along with Ivey Business School professor Matthew Thomson, recently released their study in the Journal of Consumer Affairs.

However, it wasn’t clear whether visualized social cues might be more effective stop signs for some people.

Jeffrey continued, “We wondered whether there were some smoking segments who might care more about the social consequences of smoking than some of the health-risks, and whether that could act as a more powerful smoking deterrent in that particular segment.”

What they found was the use of negative social cues on packaging was particularly effective with ‘isolated’ smokers – those who already don’t perceive smoking as part of their social selves.

Jeffrey and Thomson conducted an online experiment with adult smokers in which participants were randomly assigned to view one of two tobacco packages. Both included the same tagline – “This is how people look at smokers” – but portrayed different images.


Specifically, packages featured black-and-white photographs of the same three individuals looking at the smoker with either neutral or disgusted expressions. These facial expressions and other nonverbal communications help the receiver decode a situation – interpreting a scowl as disapproval or disdain, for example – and then guide a response, Jeffrey said.

This tactic worked particularly well with ‘isolated’ smokers, those who smoke in private rather than with a group. For them, smoking is a guilty pleasure or addiction and they may need just a bit more impetus to quit.

“Negative social cues really only worked in isolated smokers, likely because these cues reinforced the negative social aspects of smoking that isolated smokers are already well aware of,” said Jeffrey.

By contrast, ‘immersive’ smokers, who light up with friends and co-workers and who see smoking as part of their identity, were unaffected by the new packaging. “After all, if your social network is made up of actual smoking friends and colleagues, what do you care if some strangers on a tobacco package disapprove?”

Those who feel a negative self‐conscious emotion such as guilt are more motivated to make amends, stop the offending behavior, apologize for the wrongdoing or avoid the situation entirely.

It may seem counter-intuitive that the subtle message of a stranger’s disgust can be more powerful than graphic images showing how smoking increases the risk of cancer and other diseases.

“This is just human nature,” Jeffrey said. “We are prone to think in the short-term, focusing on the immediate consequences of our actions as opposed to some abstract potential long-term risk. Global warming, increasing debt levels, rising obesity – these are all a result of us as a society prioritizing our short-term wants and needs above our long-term best interests.”

She added while the results suggest incorporating negative social cues into tobacco packaging may hold promise as a means of encouraging smokers to quit, more research needs to take place into novel approaches for packaging design and messaging, particularly among young people.

Requiring printed warnings on cigarette packages since 1994, Canada became the first country to implement pictorial health warnings in June 2001. Initially required to cover 50 per cent of the front and back of the package, the warnings were made larger (required to cover 75 per cent of the package) with a new set of 16 health warnings implemented in 2012.

Last year, Parliament passed the Tobacco and Vaping Products Act which gave Health Canada the power to implement plain and standardized tobacco packaging.