Smoking Behaviors As a Diffusion Process Within Age Cohort Groups: an Application of the Societal Marketing Concept

Theodore F. Smith, Old Dominion University
Richard W. Olshavsky, Indiana University (student), Indiana University
Michael F. Smith,
ABSTRACT - This paper characterizes smoking behaviors in the context of an innovation diffusing through sequential groups of age cohorts. The authors conclude that diffusion theory has considerable potential for adding new, potentially effective dimensions to anti-smoking campaigns as well as campaigns for other products and services subject to age-cohort diffusion.
[ to cite ]:
Theodore F. Smith, Richard W. Olshavsky, and Michael F. Smith (1979) ,"Smoking Behaviors As a Diffusion Process Within Age Cohort Groups: an Application of the Societal Marketing Concept", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 06, eds. William L. Wilkie, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 392-395.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 1979      Pages 392-395


Theodore F. Smith, Old Dominion University

Richard W. Olshavsky, Indiana University

Michael F. Smith (student), Indiana University


This paper characterizes smoking behaviors in the context of an innovation diffusing through sequential groups of age cohorts. The authors conclude that diffusion theory has considerable potential for adding new, potentially effective dimensions to anti-smoking campaigns as well as campaigns for other products and services subject to age-cohort diffusion.


For several years, many marketers have been concerned with the relationships between marketing and society, and particularly the effect marketing programs have on the quality of life. The origins of increased concern parallel in many ways the factors underlying the increasing interest in the current consumerism movement. These factors include: (1) the increased tendency to question all institutions as a legacy of the social upheaval of the 1960's, (2) increased concern with environmental affairs, including both pollution and conservation, and (3) depending on one's viewpoint, either the failure of the marketing concept or its effectiveness.

Kotler's (1977) advocacy of a societal marketing concept provides a rationale for involvement in social issues, such as anti-smoking campaigns. The goal of this involvement parallels the marketing concept; i.e., better serving the long term interests of consumers, not just their felt needs. Furthermore, an application of diffusion theory to this goal may be seen as a response to Rogers' criticism that most diffusion research can be typified as pro-innovation (Rogers, 1976). Such a goal would also be consistent with Zaltman's admonition for a greater sociological input into consumer behavior research (Zaltman and Wallendorf, 1977).

If one accepts the proposition that advertising played an indirect if not direct role in establishing the popularity of smoking behaviors, it would seem appropriate that marketers should be involved in the diffusion of the theme underlying anti-smoking campaigns. As Wiebe (1951) and others have pointed out, however, several prerequisites have to exist for mass communications to effect social change. Since these prerequisites are not often present, social marketing is much more complex than merely a shift of focus as suggested by Farmer (1977).

Nevertheless, by applying diffusion theory to the study of the spread of smoking behaviors among groups of age cohorts, at the very least we should be able to glean new insights into the process of the diffusion of smoking behavior. Ultimately, such an extension of diffusion theory may also generate new approaches that will improve the effectiveness of anti-smoking campaigns.

In the following sections, the spread of smoking behaviors is related to the elements of the diffusion process wherein some possible further applications of reverse diffusion are presented.


In his formative work, Rogers (1962) segmented the diffusion process into four elements: (1) the innovation, (2) the communication of the innovation from one individual to another, (3) the social system in which innovations spread, and (4) the period of time during which the diffusion occurs. An analysis of smoking behaviors, on the basis of each of these four elements, appears to be a useful basis upon which to explore the potential for diffusion theory applications to the spread of smoking behaviors.

The Innovation

Although some disagreement exists as to what constitutes an innovation, if we recognize the importance of perceptual differences in consumer behavior, it seems logical to conclude that the most useful definition of an innovation would include anything that is seen as new. Thus, cigarette smoking was an innovation when cigarettes were first introduced into the United States from Europe around 1980 (Robert, 1969). In a real sense, moreover, smoking is an innovation for each group of age cohorts as they enter early adolescence and individually decide, albeit often under various types of social pressures, whether or not they are going to smoke.

On the basis of the impact of this innovation on the social system, smoking behaviors can be classed as a discontinuous innovation, both when originally introduced into the United States and when adopted by the first members of an age-cohort group even today. According to Robertson, a discontinuous innovation involves a significant alteration of behavior patterns, including the learning of new behaviors (Robertson, 1967). The new behaviors that must be learned today, as when cigarettes were first introduced, range from learning to smoke without coughing to learning how to avoid fires while smoking in bed.

The adoption of cigarettes can also have disruptive effects on social relationships, which is another effect characterizing discontinuous innovations. Non-smokers may be repulsed by the smoke and thus by the smoker. Consequently, smokers may seek out other smokers for social support of their habit and, at the same time, gradually reduce associations with non-smokers, especially judgmental ones.

The Communication Process

The communication process involves the performance of necessary functions by key change agents which includes the innovators or early adopters and the influentials and opinion leaders. In the public health field, for instance, attention has been devoted to identifying the profiles of children who smoke early, identified as the innovators or early adopters of cigarettes within their respective age cohort groups (Williams, 1972). Regretably, less attention has been focused on the exact role of the influentials or opinion leaders in relation to the diffusion of cigarette smoking.

The influentials or opinion leaders can be subdivided into groups characterized as positive and negative, as well as professional and personal. The positive, professional influentials for cigarettes would include celebrities who explicitly endorse specific brands of cigarettes or, who, by their public smoking behaviors, tacitly provide a generic endorsement. For example, the cowboys in the macho ads for Marlboro cigarettes serve as influentials, underscoring the association between masculinity and cigarette smoking.

For the purposes of anti-diffusion of cigarettes, however, it appears that the personal influentials need more attention. Previous research has identified possible motivations for personal influentials in the diffusion of other types of products. Among the suggested motivations for the behavior of personal influentials are the following: (1) product involvement; (2) self-fulfillment; (3) concern for others; (4) message involvement; and (5) dissonance reduction. A more thorough understanding of why positive influentials and opinion leaders encourage smoking within their peer groups may lead to suggestions for ways to reduce the incidence of this behavior or to minimize its effects.

A negative influential or opinion leader would be one who is effective in discouraging adoption of a product or service. In the context of retarding the diffusion of cigarette smoking among youths, a negative influential would be someone whose opinions are respected by the target population and who communicates that it is "not cool" to smoke. That the would-be influential's opinions be respected is an important prerequisite for effective influence, lest the campaign fail due to a behavioral application of a mathematical principle: a minus times a minus equals a positive. That is, a negative message from a source that is disrespected would be perceived as positive, not negative, reinforcement for the behavior in question. This same principle can be turned around, however, by having a disrespected source give a positive (pro-smoking) message to achieve a negative impact. A classic example of this latter case is the picture of the skid row bum with a butt curled over his lower lip, and the caption "smoking is glamorous."

The Social System

The social climate or milieu for the diffusion is the third element of the diffusion process. For traditional product or service diffusion studies, the focus has been on such factors as the extent to which the prevailing social mores and folkways favor change in the subject area. Viewing smoking behaviors as an innovation in the process of diffusion, some relatively recent social changes are noteworthy. Until recently, smoking was a dominant behavior, at least in some settings; e.g., cocktail parties, coffee shops, and in business conference rooms. Currently, however, smoking appears to be assuming the aura of a deviant behavior, especially in adult society. The task from an anti-diffusion viewpoint, is how to help establish smoking as a deviant behavior in the eyes of teenagers. Thus, the social system is an important facet of the anti-diffusion of smoking not in the usual sense of the willingness of people in the system to accept new products or patterns of behavior, but rather the social system is important more in terms of the extent to which it incorporates attitudinal underpinnings of smoking behaviors.

The Time Required

The time span during which the diffusion occurs is the fourth element of the diffusion process. With conventional diffusion theory applications, the concern here is whether or not the diffusion pattern follows the usual S-shaped curve. The concern in the case of the anti-diffusion of cigarettes, however, is to impede the diffusion of cigarette smoking within each successive group of age cohorts. Such a retardation of the process is considered important, because some empirical evidence suggests that people who begin smoking relatively early in their lives have a much more difficult time quitting the habit. Also, the earlier individuals begin smoking the sooner in their lives the cumulative, deleterious effects of cigarette smoking might lead to serious disorders.

Adoption Process

Diffusion researchers also concern themselves with the decision process, at the individual level, which precedes adoption--i.e., the evaluative criteria used, sources of information, extent of search for alternatives, and so on. Considerable research on cigarette smokers (Williams, 1972) particularly with adolescents, suggests that smoking is initiated for one or more reasons: imitation and emulation of adults or peers, curiosity, and simple acquiescence to group pressure. As such, it appears that no real decision process precedes the sampling of the first few cigarettes. Thereafter, the rapid development of physiological dependence appears to make decision making an ad hoc activity.


Thus far, we have explored the bases upon which the spread of smoking behavior can be viewed as a diffusion of an innovation. In this section, some explicit possibilities for additional diffusion theory applications are presented. To organize the suggestions for additional ways of applying diffusion theory to this anti-diffusion problem, the discussion will once again be subdivided according to Rogers' four elements of the diffusion process.

The Innovation

Smoking behavior can be typified as a recurring innovation-adoption process which is diffused through successively new and unaware age cohorts. The cycle depicting the evolution of non-smoking children to heavy user teenagers has served to facilitate the extension of the product life cycle for cigarettes. It is proposed that a reverse innovation-adoption process be instigated wherein non-smoking is the innovation to be diffused through new age-cohorts. Utilizing diffusion theory, the goal of the campaign is to create a rapid decline in the life cycle of cigarettes by focusing on each new wave of prospective smokers. Such a strategy has been termed a countermarketing strategy by Kotler (1977).

As a possible source of potentially effective appeals for an anti-diffusion campaign, Rogers and Shoemaker's paradigm of product characteristics associated with early adoption of a product is worthy of consideration (Rogers and Shoemaker, 1971). These characteristics are applied in reverse as follows:

1. Relative advantage - The anti-diffusion campaign could stress further the advantages of not smoking or of smoking pipes or cigars in lieu of cigarettes.

2. Comparability - The incompatibility of smoking with existing values such as preservation of one's body or the incompatibility of smoking with other concerns such as independence, romance, and pollution control.

3. Divisibility - The difficulty of smoking on a trial basis due to the dangers of rapid physiological and psychological addiction.

4. Communicability - Health dangers are difficult to convey to adolescents, for most of the serious damage of smoking arise after many years of smoking, and that prospect is too remote to be real to adolescents, especially in view of the common adolescent sense of immortality.

5. Complexity - The implications of smoking on other aspects of life ranging from greater need (expense) for smokers for cleaning services to higher incidence of respiratory infections, with the attendant restrictions on other activities during periodic recuperations. In other words, emphasizing that a decision to smoke impacts many areas of life, due to complex inter-relationships.

The Communication Process

Some actions have already been taken utilizing communications media to reduce smoking behaviors. Examples of such moves would include the anti-smoking television commercials, the ban on broadcast cigarette commercials, and the moral suasion of television personalities to reduce, it not eliminate, on-camera smoking. It would appear, however, that the mass media may be efficient in the sense of creating awareness of the existence of a problem, but moving people to action requires interpersonal reinforcement. Lazarsfeld and Merton have labeled this interpersonal function "supplementation" (Lazarsfeld and Merton, 1949). Greater attention must be directed to using the interpersonal communications process to encourage discontinuance of smoking behaviors or, in a positive sense to promote the diffusion of non-smoking as the social norm. Given the difficulty smokers encounter when they try to quit, it is recommended that better ways be found to communicate with young people before they begin to smoke. Past attempts to utilize the interpersonal communications process to encourage non-smoking among adolescents and pre-adolescents has not met with much success. Perhaps, an independence appeal could be better employed as a global value that, for many young people, would have greater salience than the values which smoking behaviors satisfy. An appeal to independence may ultimately establish or reinforce the ideal of being a person who is not enslaved by addiction to nicotine or any other kind of drug. Thus, the campaign may have benefits for other drug control programs as well. The danger of this lumping of other drugs with nicotine would be that the campaign may have the undesired side-effect of lessening the perceived severity of hard drug usage, by lumping hard drugs with the common cigarette.

Since it seems unlikely, at least to these writers, that an anti-diffusion campaign against smoking is likely to affect the seemingly common adolescent sense of immortality, health appeals do not seem to hold much promise for a significant fraction of this segment. With many of the serious health effects of smoking usually taking ten to twenty years to develop, young people are likely to continue to believe either "It can't happen to me," or "I'll quit before then." One appeal that may be meaningful to young people would be that youth is a special time of life, why complicate it with a habit like smoking, a habit that is likely to impede involvement in other activities that are so much a part of being young. Being free to enjoy life, unencumbered by dependency on cigarettes or other drugs may well constitute a much more effective appeal than all the talk, now often regarded as cliches, that smoking is harmful to your health.

Whatever appeals are used, be they independence or others, the goal would be the same; that is, to try to increase the salience of non-smoking as an ideal through interpersonal reinforcement.

The Social System

A social milieu change that may weaken the social underpinnings for smoking behaviors would be further restrictions on areas where smoking by children is allowed. If smoking becomes inconvenient or, in other words, a deliberate act, then the nature of the dependence of smokers on their habit will become more obvious with the hoped for eventual benefit of increasing the salience of the independence motive for non-smoking.

It seems that any campaign to restrict smoking areas for adolescents would have to be gradual, at a carefully monitored pace. If the restrictions increase too rapidly, non-compliance would probably be pervasive, weakening, if not destroying, the effectiveness of the campaign. It must be recognized that some hard-core smokers will not quit, regardless of how inconvenient the habit becomes and in spite of whatever social pressures are generated. Time must be allowed for these smokers to adjust gradually their activities in compliance with the increasing restrictions. As their smoking behaviors become gradually isolated from the mainstream of social and educational activity, the perception of smoking as a deviant behavior will gradually increase.

Another danger of too rapid an escalation of smoking area restrictions would be that the appeal of smoking as a forbidden fruit would be increased. The generation of smoking dens, similar to the speakeasies of the Prohibition Era, would not be desirable, though the emergence of such dens may lessen smoking in public places.

Time Dimension

Typically, the diffusion of an innovation overtime refers to the rate of penetration of the population at large. It took roughly sixty years before cigarettes entered the growth stage of the product life cycle. It may take at least as many years before a reverse diffusion process will have a significant impact on cigarette sales. This is because the rate of decline as the result of any anti-smoking effort aimed only at prospective smokers will be proportionate to the size of this target group relative to the total smoking population. Campaign objectives, to be realistic, must reflect this effect.

Adoption Process

In recognition of the fact that the majority of smokers started before the age of 18 and that the older the individual the less likely smoking will be taken up, one strategy for decreasing cigarette consumption among youths is indirectly to force them to delay the trial of cigarettes (e.g., as might happen with a more vigorous, more extensive athletic program in the schools). And in recognition of the fact that the adoption of cigarettes is rarely preceded by an extended choice process, one strategy is to counteract the influence of the adult and peer smoking models by reducing direct and indirect social pressure. Yet another strategy would be to encourage prospective smokers in this age group to make an overt and deliberate consideration of the pros and cons of smoking before trying even the first cigarette.


On the assumption that people are often too close to the forest to see the trees, the writers have tried to place smoking behaviors in a new perspective. By viewing smoking as innovative behavior, diffusing through successive "generations" of age cohorts, we have attempted to draw on diffusion theory as a conceptual framework for developing insights into alternative approaches for retarding the continuing and accelerating diffusion of cigarette smoking among young people.

The extension of the concept of diffusion, in the context of viewing it as a successive and on-going process, through sequential groups of age cohorts, has potential for applications to other "innovations" as well. Any product, service, or behavior for which the use of or need for is largely restricted by processes of physiological development or by social mores and folkways, to individuals of a certain age, can be meaningfully viewed as the diffusion of an innovation. Examples of other products and services where such, age cohort, diffusion would occur would include shaving gear, alcoholic beverages, motorized vehicles, cosmetics and contraception.

By recognizing the concept of, age cohort, diffusion, marketers and others concerned with consumer behavior can draw on the vast body of interdisciplinary research known as diffusion of innovations to gain new insights into the problems that beset products and services subject to age cohort diffusion. Empirical tests of this extension of diffusion theory are planned by these writers, and it is to be hoped that others will test the applicability of age cohort diffusion as well.


Richard N. Farmer, "Would You Want Your Son to Marry a Marketing Lady?," Journal of Marketing, 41 (January 1977), 15-18.

Phillip Kotler, Marketing Management: Analysis, Planning and Control. (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1976), 18.

Paul F. Lazarsfeld and Robert K. Merton, "Mass Communication, Popular Taste, and Organized Social Action," in William Schramm ed., Mass Communications, (Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1949), 459-480.

Joseph C. Robert, The Story of Tobacco in America, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969).

Thomas S. Robertson, "The Process of Innovation and The Diffusion of Innovations,"Journal of Marketing, 31, (January 1967), 14-19.

Everett M. Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations, (New York: Glencoe Free Press, 1962), 12.

Everett M. Rogers, "New Product Adoption and Diffusion," Journal of Consumer Research, 2, (March 1976), 290-300.

G. D. Wiebe, "Merchandising, Commodities and Citizenship on Television," Public Opinion Quarterly, 15, (Winter 1951-52), 679-691.

Tannis M. Williams, Summary and Implications of Review of Literature Related to Adolescent Smoking, Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, National Clearinghouse for Smoking and Health, Bethesda, MD., 1972.

Gerald Zaltman and Melanie Wallendorf, "Sociology: The Missing Chunk Or How We Missed The Boat," Contemporary Marketing Thought: 1977 Educator's Proceedings of the American Marketing Association, Edited by Barnett A. Greenberg and Danny N. Bellenger, Chicago: American Marketing Association, 1977, 235-38.