Mixed Signals: Why We Don’t Fear Cigarettes (or Crepes)

Mixed Signals: Why We Don’t Fear Cigarettes (or Crepes) July 8, 2011

Mixed Signals is Erin Straza’s weekly musing about marketing miscellany in advertising, branding, and messaging.

Consumer behavior can be boiled down to the battle between choices. We waffle between the practical and the functional, the nutritious and the unwholesome, the need and the want.

Looking at my own waverings, I see two mentalities at work. The first is a bent toward immediate gratification—I have a craving, and I want to satisfy it now. The second is a delusion of invincibility—whatever warnings or dangers associated with satisfying the craving certainly won’t come home to roost here.

For example, when faced with the choice of all-natural granola or a Nutella banana crepe for breakfast, I want the immediate gratification of the crepe, and I am spurred on by my delusion that if I eat it, it won’t really hurt me.

To override this internal web of reasoning, something stronger would need to convince me to choose the granola. Whatever the product category, marketers have a steep hill to climb in convincing consumers to choose the sensible over the enticing.

That’s why fear is often used as a platform, because fear is strong enough to jar us to the reality of our choices.

The FDA has been using fear for years to inform us about cigarettes. Starting in 2012, the fear will be dialed up a notch with the addition of graphic photos to the existing printed warning. An online article posted at The Economist on June 21, 2011, explains: “The World Health Organisation reports that images that elicit strong emotions, such as fear, are the most effective anti-smoking labels.” Here’s an example of one of the new images:


Seeing the ugly result of smoking cigarettes pulls back the curtain of invincibility. The fear and disgust also shake off the craving long enough so we can make a better choice.

But fear wears off. With repeated exposure, shocking images and statistics become mundane. After the images lose their power, then what? Fear isn’t a permanent solution to our cigarette- smoking, crepe-eating bent.

These choices are merely external symptoms of our internal attraction toward the very things that aren’t good for us. Fear won’t fix it, and that’s why God has had mercy on us through Christ Jesus. Without His life empowering us and changing us from the inside out, we will continue to be drawn to the very things that harm us.

I doubt the FDA will start printing this truth on cigarette packaging, however.

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