People are exposed on a daily basis to entertainment media, often for hours at a time. While tobacco advertisements in the visual media are banned or reduced in many countries, entertainment media (ie, music video clips, television series and movies) still contains many prompts to smoke, because they frequently depict characters that smoke. Because movies and television series with smokers are distributed worldwide, these smoking depictions contribute to people’s exposure to smoking models worldwide. Our previous experimental study showed that daily smokers smoke more when exposed to ‘real-life’ smoking models. However, we do not yet know how daily smokers are affected by smoking models in the visual media.
Characters that smoke tobacco in contemporary movies are predominantly white, male, middle-aged and of high socioeconomic status. According to the social learning theory, the high social status of the movie star increases influence; making it more likely that his/her smoking behaviour will be adopted by the viewers. This is problematic, especially because the movie character is usually portrayed with appealing traits (eg, good looking, mature, healthy, successful) and the negative consequences of smoking are absent in these movies. Therefore, it is crucial to gain knowledge on the impact of smoking portrayal in movies on people’s smoking-related cognitions and smoking behaviour. In 2008, the National Cancer Institute issued a publication reviewing the effect of entertainment media smoking, and concluded that there is a significant association between exposure to smoking depictions and youth smoking initiation. The conclusion was based on cross-sectional and longitudinal survey studies, which show that smoking portrayal in movies is associated with more favourable attitudes towards smoking and a higher likelihood to initiate smoking. Besides survey studies, a few experimental studies have been conducted. The advantage of using such an experimental design to examine the impact of smoking portrayal in movies is: (1) the manipulation of smoking versus no-smoking portrayal in movies, and (2) enhancing causal interpretations. The experimental research that has been conducted in this area showed that adolescents and young adults who are exposed to smoking in movies have a higher likelihood for pro-smoking beliefs and intentions to smoke.
Importantly, Pechmann and Shih reasoned that, by displaying an antismoking advertisement before the movie, adolescent viewers will be less likely to approve of the smoking in movies. Their experimental study, conducted in a classroom setting among 800 non-smoking adolescents (14–15 years of age), demonstrated that showing an antismoking advertisement—emphasising the negative consequences of smoking—before the movie reduces the effect of smoking models in movies. The findings are partly in line with the quasi-experimental study of Edwards and colleagues among 2038 female visitors to real movie theatres (12–17 years of age). They showed that among smokers (but not among non-smokers) antismoking advertisements before a movie with smoking portrayal decreased intentions to smoke in the future.
In conclusion, previous empirical research has shed light on the impact of smoking portrayal in movies on smoking initiation; however, research beyond the initiation phase is lacking. We know of no data to suggest that smoking portrayal in movies also affects the smoking behaviour of daily smokers either during or after a movie. To begin to fill this gap, we conducted an experimental study on whether exposure to smoking in one movie could influence smoking intensity among young adult daily smokers able to smoke ad lib during the presentation. Based on previous results for alcohol, which showed that young adults drank more alcohol during a movie showing alcohol depictions, our first hypothesis was that subjects would have higher smoking intensity—smoking a greater number of cigarettes and having a higher likelihood to continue smoking (ie, smoke more than one cigarette)—when exposed to smoking in movies. Further, we were interested whether antismoking ads (a) could reduce smoking intensity, and (b) whether they would moderate the effect of smoking in movies. Specifically, our second hypothesis was that subjects would smoke fewer cigarettes and have a lower likelihood to continue smoking when exposed to antismoking ads. Based on the results of Pechmann and Shih, our third hypothesis was that antismoking advertisements will reduce the effect of smoking in movies on the number of cigarettes smoked and the likelihood to continue smoking.
By Zeena Harakeh, Rutger C M E Engels, Kathleen Vohs, Rick B van Baaren, James Sargent