I don’t know if any of you have watched television the past couple years but I hit my breaking point this past week. These no smoking advertisements are getting out of hand. By no means am I saying that I support smoking, I understand that it’s a highly addicting drug with several negative health benefits, but there has got to be another approach other than ruining my appetite. Overusing a sensational approach will eventually prove detrimental to the ultimate message.

Vintage anti-smoking ad via


Sensationalism n. A means for generating hype and increased readership, presenting the subject matter in a bias light in an effort to appeal to hyper-emotions, display controversy, or to simply play devil’s advocate.

In the world of marketing this can seem like a perfect approach and developing a piece of content that generates an intense emotion is the focal point of most marketers. However, the message can become blurred or even forgotten when one relies too heavily on emotion and not enough on actual content. It may be great in the short-term, but this approach is not sustainable.

The Diminishing Return of Ads

Sensationalism and repetition has been a marketing approach since the Madmen days and it does have an effect. However, as psychology shows us, when people are constantly subjected to a sensational element or imagery they begin to become numb to that emotion.

One example of this is Abu Ghraib from 2004. U.S Military soldiers were torturing Iraqi prisoners and overtime they began to lose morality and subjected these prisoners to inhumane acts of torture. They were exposed for their unnecessary tactics and interviewed after the fact. What they claimed is that the environment and constant exposer to visually torturing the prisoners dehumanized them and ultimately led to a numbing of senses.

Of course, I’m being sensational by comparing the acts of Abu Ghraib with that of the visually gruesome anti-smoking ads but there is a connection. Marketing research suggests that repeated exposure to messages (commercials) lead to plateauing and falling off of one’s attention, awareness, and ability to recall.

There’s No Place to Go but Down

Marketing is a progressive entity that continues to steadily stretch its boundaries. As we have seen through the years, anti-smoking campaigns have increasingly became more and more sensational.

There is a short-term reaction to dramatic advertisements; however, once the effects begin to plateau they must increase the intensity in order to gain the same reaction they had with their initial campaign. Do you see the irony?

I cannot imagine that making the viewer gag through advertisements is a sustainable approach. At some point there has to be a digression and movement away from emotional dependency.

modern ads via

I Think We Get It

Watching anti-smoking ads is beginning to feel like banging your head against the wall. I would prefer a clever informative campaign over the gruesome attempt to tug my heart strings. We are, for the most part, a highly informed society.  At this point we understand the negative effects of smoking and could benefit from a different approach if nothing more than to eliminate my grimacing from the television.

Marketing is just as much psychology as it is business or art or anything else. When we understand the emotional effects content has on people we can prepare for expected reactions. As history and science has shown, repetition of a sensational message leads to a loss of interest, emotion, and effect. This is no way an attempt to diminish the message/movement of anti-smoking campaigns, but rather a suggestion that it may be time to reassess the approach.