Hidden Messages

Blog Post created by dr_hays on Jun 8, 2016

A few weeks ago, a colleague of mine and I were discussing a presentation she would be giving about tobacco use among adolescents.  She recounted a story about her own tobacco use and the power of Big Tobacco’s subliminal marketing tactics used to lure teens just like her into smoking.   With her permission, I would like to share her experience with you all.


My colleague started smoking at the age of sixteen back in the mid-1980s.  Both her parents were smokers and much like many other beginning smokers, she would take cigarettes from both of their packs.   While her parents knew she was taking them, they did not say anything.  Rather, in hopes of discouraging her from smoking, they would cut advertisements from magazines and place them on her bed.  


Here is one such clipping she recalled finding in her room after school one afternoon:


At first glance, one would think that the tobacco industry has made a good faith effort to discourage youth from smoking in this ad.  However, when we begin to break down the language used, this advertisement sends suggestive messages that often appeal to teenagers.  For example, teens value independence and often wish to be seen as older, more mature.  This advertisement highlights these messages through phrases like “smoking has always been an adult custom”, “smoking has become very controversial”, and “deciding to smoke…is something you should do when you don’t have anything to prove”.  For teens who wish to be treated as adults and differentiate themselves from their peers, this becomes quite an attractive message. 


Adolescence is a time of identity formation and trying to fit in for many teenagers.  These “anti-smoking” campaigns funded by Big Tobacco have indeed spoken to youth.  Unfortunately, they have sent the wrong messages.  Research has shown that industry-funded tobacco prevention efforts have minimial impact on curbing teen smoking, and have actually increased the chances of underage tobacco use (1).  A 2006, study found that tobacco-funded prevention ads were associated with lowered perceived harm of smoking, stronger approval of smoking, and a stronger intention to smoke in the future among teenagers (2).


It is important that we continue to educate the teens and children in our lives about the harms of tobacco.  When cigarettes kill as many as two out of three smokers, we know the tobacco companies will be looking for replacement customers (3).  Let's not give them the chance.  As my retired colleague, Dr. Richard Hurt, would say, “We’ve got to always be careful with Big Tobacco, they are like the wolf in sheep’s clothing.” 




1.            Henriksen L, Dauphinee AL, Wang Y, Fortmann SP (2006) Industry Sponsored Anti-Smoking Ads and Adolescent Reactance: Test of a Boomerang Effect. Tob Control 15: 13–18.

2.            Melanie Wakefield, Yvonne Terry-McElrath, Sherry Emery, Henry Saffer, Frank J. Chaloupka, Glen Szczypka, Brian Flay, Patrick M. O’Malley, and Lloyd D. Johnston.  Effect of Televised, Tobacco Company–Funded Smoking Prevention Advertising on Youth Smoking-Related Beliefs, Intentions, and Behavior. American Journal of Public Health: December 2006, Vol. 96, No. 12, pp. 2154-2160.

3.            Emily Banks, Grace Joshy, Marianne F Weber, Bette Liu, Robert Grenfell, Sam Egger, Ellie Paige, Alan D Lopez, Freddy Sitas, Valerie Beral. Tobacco smoking and all-cause mortality in a large Australian cohort study: findings from a mature epidemic with current low smoking prevalence. BMC Medicine, 2015; 13 (1) DOI: 10.1186/s12916-015-0281-z