• 10.09.13

Warning: Health Warnings On Cigarettes Might Make You Smoke More

Dire announcements about the unhealthiness of drugs, cigarettes, and artificial sweetener might actually just be an impressive feat of reverse psychology.

Warning: Health Warnings On Cigarettes Might Make You Smoke More

So, those alarming side-effect messages at the end of drug ads on TV, the ones warning about “thoughts of suicide,” sexual dysfunction, and liquids issuing from unspeakable places. You would think they’d encourage people to take less Abilify and Prilosec, right? Maybe not.


Oddly, a new study suggests side-effect warnings could actually increase sales of products.

In a series of experiments, researchers tested how volunteers respond to ads for cigarettes, artificial sweeteners, erectile dysfunction medication, and hair loss products. In the first, they asked 71 smokers to view a tobacco ad, with one group viewing a version full of messages about cancer, heart disease, and so on, and another group seeing a clean version. As you would expect, the group seeing the horror ad bought less. What’s interesting is what happened a few days later, when researchers asked the volunteers again. The effect of the warnings had worn off. The participants seeing the horror ads were more likely to buy the brand than the group that had seen the clean ad.

Writing in the journal Psychological Science, Yael Steinhart at Tel Aviv University, Yaacov Trope at New York University, and Ziv Carmon at INSEAD business school, say other experiments have reported similar results. In each case, when the purchase decision was delayed, volunteers were more likely to buy products with warnings attached.

Why? The paper says the messages, however dire, have the effect of increasing trust, and encouraging consumers to believe they are entering into a upfront “two-sided” dialogue. “This increases the message recipient’s sense of knowledge and confidence about the product,” the researchers write.

At the same time, the power of the warning itself is gradually lost. “As time separates the message from the behavior of which it warns, the prominence of side effects is attenuated, and the trustworthiness of the ad rises,” the paper says.

None of the experiments involved more than 75 volunteers, so the conclusions should be treated with a grain of salt. But still, the work calls into question the idea that side-effect warnings necessarily make people more cautious. Ironically, they could lead them to engage in more risky behavior.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.