As individuals’ knowledge and belief in the toxic health effects of tobacco use grows, the likelihood of using tobacco decreases and their support for protective policies increases. Mass media gives us the opportunity to efficiently persuade large populations about the urgent need for action. Using media to inspire individuals to quit tobacco or persuade them not to start using it, and societies to take up policies for a tobacco-free future is a critical part of the tobacco control toolbox.
Media campaigns are embedded both in both WHO FCTC Article 12 and the WHO MPOWER package – “W” for Warning. Successful campaigns change individual behavior, shift broader social norms, and build popular support for tobacco control policies. Moreover, research in countries across the Human Development Index (HDI) demonstrates that campaigns can be cost-effective – just a few cents per quit attempt in some countries.
Two essential components of successful campaigns are effective messaging and delivery. Research consistently demonstrates the effectiveness of campaigns that challenge audiences to deal with the specific negative impacts of smoking – e.g., cancer, blindness and lung disease. Some examples are victims’ real-world testimonials or graphic depictions of damage.
Best-practice campaigns use behavioral research to test messages with intended audiences— e.g., male smokers— to ensure they are effective and culturally relevant. In lower-HDI countries, costly research can be avoided by adapting campaigns from other areas that have a strong evidence of success and target similar populations— e.g., compelling graphic images have been found to have wide application across many cultures. Supporting campaign messages such as highlighting stories of happy ex-smokers may also reinforce smokers’ belief they can successfully quit. A poorly-messaged campaign can have little or no impact. Finally, it is critical to rigorously evaluate a campaign’s impact.
Underinvestment in media delivery and planning is a frequent failing of tobacco control programs. Successful use of mass media requires sustained campaigns with broad population reach. This includes keeping campaigns “on the air” most months of the year. The most successful campaigns use a mix of media channels— usually television and radio due to their high reach and proven impact —with social and digital media as an emerging tool in many key populations. Sustained media delivery with high reach, such as extended national television campaigns, can be expensive. Many countries have implemented innovative policies to ensure that their tobacco control media campaigns receive placements. These range from health promotion foundations that utilize tobacco taxes to fund campaigns to legislation that mandates television and radio channels dedicate a portion of prime-time programming to public health messages.
Recent evidence shows that campaigns can use social media to mobilize large populations to advocate for tobacco control policies. In Vietnam, small-dollar social media ads on Facebook were used to generate significant public discourse online and offline around pending legislation, which ultimately passed.