Smoking Scenes in Movies and Antismoking Advertisements Before Movies: Effects on Youth
by Connie Pechmann and Chuan-Fong Shih
University of California, Irvine
Overview of Study and Findings
Smoking remains prevalent among the nation’s high school students, despite declines in smoking among adults. This problem has led to a significant public dialogue about the reasons youths smoke as well as the most effective ways to discourage them from doing so. While research has shown that tobacco advertising and peer pressure are crucial influences, policy officials, the media, and the public are increasingly focusing attention on the extensive depictions of smoking in feature films as a possible instigator of underage smoking.
Content analyses suggest that smoking occurs in as many as 80% of new film releases and that “smoking in movies is associated with youthful vigor, good health, good looks and personal/professional acceptance” (Hazan, Lipton, and Glantz 1994, p. 999). Films rarely depict the negative health consequences of smoking or public concern about secondhand smoke.
The authors have conducted what appears to be the first controlled experiment on how attractive film stars’ on-screen smoking might influence young viewers. Eight hundred ninth graders watched either original movie footage with smoking or control footage with the smoking edited out. Emotional reactions were recorded during viewing, and smoking-related thoughts, beliefs, and intent were assessed afterward.
One group watched the 1994 movie “Reality Bites” in its entirety. The other group watched a professionally edited version of “Reality Bites” with the smoking behavior discretely edited out. This film was chosen because it has youth-oriented themes about breaking free from parents and attaining success and stature in the adult world—and because young and attractive lead characters smoke in a large number of scenes.
In the experiment, the authors tested two rival theses regarding the effects of smoking in feature films on youths and the ability of antismoking advertising to nullify those effects. They found no support for Excitation Transfer Theory (Zillmann 1971, 1983), which predicts that when movie scenes elicit positive emotions, the favorable effect can transfer to the smokers depicted in those scenes. The findings indicate that even when movie scenes evoked very positive emotional reactions, the effect did not carry over to the smokers in those scenes.
However, the findings strongly support the Forbidden Fruit thesis, which is based on the idea that cigarettes and cigars have attained the status of forbidden fruits because of the increased prohibitions against tobacco use in U.S. society (Klein 1993). The authors found that teens appeared to be rather titillated by the scenes in which movie stars smoked, versus the same scenes in which the smoking was edited out. Specifically, the study participants showed elevated levels of positive emotions when viewing scenes with smoking. Further, these scenes created the impression that smoking was socially condoned and enhanced the teens’ perceptions of smokers’ social stature while also increasing their intent to smoke.
Although this study indicates that young people are susceptible to Hollywood images that glamorize smoking, it also reveals that youths’ views about smoking are malleable and that anti-smoking advertising can have a discernible impact. When teens were shown an advertisement that implied that their peers view smokers as unwise, unattractive, and misguided, the image of smoking was tainted for them. Those who saw the anti-smoking advertisement experienced negative thoughts about the movie characters who smoked, and these thoughts apparently impeded positive forbidden fruit reactions.
Significance of the Research
This research demonstrates the importance of showing anti-smoking advertisements in movie theaters immediately before feature films to mitigate the impact of scenes depicting movie stars smoking. The authors recommend that U.S. organizations that are involved in tobacco use prevention—including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state and local health departments, and nonprofit groups such as the American Lung Association, American Heart Association, and American Cancer Society—fund or otherwise encourage the showing of these advertisements.
This research also shows that increased attention needs to be focused on feature film content. Content analyses indicate that the prevalence of smoking in feature films has increased markedly during the past 25 years. In the 1970s, it is estimated that less than one-third of U.S. films contained smoking, whereas by 1996, three-fourths of films depicted smoking (Stockwell and Glantz 1997).
The positive depictions of smoking in films seem particularly likely to affect youths, who tend to be impressionable and are three times more likely than adults to be frequent moviegoers (Terre, Drabman, and Speer 1991). In the interests of public health and improved public relations, filmmakers should take steps to reduce the amount of smoking portrayed in films—particularly in youth-oriented fare.
In 1998, at the urging of then Vice President Al Gore, the Entertainment Industries Council distributed 1,500 copies of “depiction suggestions” that recommend against showing characters smoking. One suggestion reads: “Unless a character’s tobacco use truly reveals something important about the character, consider other unique behaviors that might convey the same information.” Depiction suggestions have played a major role in ensuring that on primetime network television, smoking rarely is shown, especially in the foreground (Cruz and Wallack 1986).
The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) could help reduce the impact of onscreen smoking on teens by making depictions of cigarette smoking a consideration when assigning movie ratings.
The authors also advocate passage of federal legislation that bans all methods of tobacco placements in films, including direct payments to studios, the use of placement agents, co-promotional activities, and the provision of free products for use as props. Federal legislation of this type should minimize tobacco marketers’ input into placement decisions and thus help reassure the public and public health officials. However, it will still be up to filmmakers to make a greater effort to avoid depictions of smoking that will have the appeal of forbidden fruit to teen-aged viewers.
Cornelia Pechmann and Chuan-Fong Shih (1999). "Smoking Scenes in Movies and Antismoking Advertisements Before Movies: Effects on Youth," Journal of Marketing, 63 (July), pages 1-13.
Cruz, Jon and Lawrence Wallack (1986), “Trends in Tobacco Use on Television,” American Journal of Public Health, 76 (6), 698-699.
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