Tobacco ad policy might be doing it wrong: suggested mid-20s cigarette ad models prompt more teens to smoke

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Teens smoking cigarette
Teenagers smoke and talk in front of a vacant business in Ushuaia, Argentina, December 31, 2010. Reuters

Experts suggest regulators should revisit the current advertising regulations applied to the alcohol and tobacco industries, as it appear to be encouraging more teens to smoke. The current policy requires cigarette and alcohol industry to use 25-year-old or older ad models to protect adolescents, but a new study found 14 to 15-year-olds tend to be more persuaded to smoke and drink by the mid-20s models seen in advertisements.

The new study, published in the journal of Consumer Psychology, shows that when a product is age-restricted, teens are more likely to respond to dissatisfaction with their age by behaving like young adults. More young people may choose to smoke as a result.

Cornelia Pechmann, author of the study and a marketing professor at University of California, said that the findings show that the efforts of the cigarette and alcohol industries to protect the adolescents by using models 25 years of age or older may be having the exact opposite effect.

The research team performed a series of experiments that involved providing professionally produced mock magazines to a group of adolescents, then asking them questions about the magazine’s content of different advertisements. The questionnaire included personal inquiries about the participants’ plan to smoke in the future.

The researchers found that the advertisements with 17-year-old cigarette models, almost the same age of the participants, reduced their intent to smoke, while the ads featuring young adult models at 25 years old increased the intent to smoke of the participants.

Mid-aged adult models of about 45 years old were also used for the ads, and no certain effect on the participants’ intent to smoke was found.

“Advertising policy is based on the assumption that certain similarities between the models used in alcohol and tobacco ads, and the consumers who view the ads, are what drive persuasion, especially similarity in age. On the surface, psychological research and theory seems to support this view,” Pechmann said in a press release.

However, the study shows different response from the adolescents when the advertised product is age-restricted. The findings may signify a need to change the way the industry provides advertising guidelines for certain products to protect young people from predatory advertising practices, Pechmann stated.

It is clear that the adolescent desire more for age-restricted products, such as cigarettes and alcohol, if they see a young adult model rather than one of similar age with them. With the findings, the researchers suggest that the best policy to protect adolescents from advertising of age-restricted products is to use models of about 45 years or older.

They also consider that the adolescents are facing unique life challenges like understanding and attaining the freedom and independence that comes with young adulthood that made them respond differently than expected. The limitations and restrictions may be the reason for the dissatisfaction of the adolescents.  

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