In 2018, the FDA started requiring that every e-cig ad include a large warning banner on top, reading: “WARNING: This product contains nicotine. Nicotine is an addictive chemical.” But in 2017, shortly before this policy went into effect, the e-cig maker Blu debuted a different kind of banner–one that looked just like the FDA-required cautionary messages, positioned in the same place the real ones would soon appear. The company’s fake warnings included lines like “IMPORTANT: Contains flavor” and “IMPORTANT: Less harmful to your wallet.”
As it turns out, these fake warnings can desensitize people to the real dangers of nicotine. And the tobacco industry isn’t the only sector using this approach to advertising, which is in some ways a kind of dark pattern–a term that originated to describe UX design trickery meant to fool users.
Researchers at Ohio State University first noticed the strange advertising scheme right when Blu first debuted it.
“When we saw that Blu released ads with fake warnings, right before the FDA-mandated warnings would go into effect, we were interested to see how youth responded to this strategy,” says Brittney Keller-Hamilton, a doctoral candidate at Ohio State University’s College of Public Health. They enlisted 775 adolescent boys and randomly assigned them to view Blu magazine ads with fake warning banners and real warning banners. When researchers asked the fake group what they remembered the best from the ads, an incredible 27% recalled the joke warning. Nineteen percent were even able to repeat the message. They also tended to be less able to recall any actual warnings or health risks, which appeared on all of the ads at the bottom.
“I can’t say what Blu’s objective was with this advertising campaign,” says Keller-Hamilton, “but we found that adolescents who viewed an e-cigarette ad with a fake warning were less likely to remember the actual warning message on the ad.”
Blu can’t repeat this exact advertising trick, since the new warning laws have now gone into effect. But Keller-Hamilton worries that old-fashioned, combustible cigarette companies might take advantage of such fake warnings, since the ad regulations are slightly different for conventional cigarettes.
Meanwhile, I couldn’t help but notice another parallel–not in the tobacco industry, but in the food industry:
If you’re ready for a Dangerously Cheesy® addition to your next family fun night, get crunching on Cheetos® Crunchy cheese flavoured snacks! They’re perfect for sharing! The bold crunch and real cheese in Cheetos® Crunchy cheese flavoured snacks are here to give you the cheese taste you love with the crunch you enjoy! Warning! Snack with caution: Cheetos® Crunchy cheese flavoured snacks have been found to be Dangerously Cheesy® and deliciously crunchy with just the right amount of bold flavour you love.
Cheetos, owned by Frito-Lay, which is owned by PepsiCo, has actually registered the slogan “Dangerously Cheesy” for its exclusive advertising rights, and includes “Warning! Snack with caution” in its ad copy. Intentional or not, the food industry seems to have taken a similar tact to the tobacco industry, potentially desensitizing us from the health risks related to processed junk food with fake warnings. Also notable is that the target Cheetos customer is under 24–the same young and impressionable demographic that was affected by the Blu ads.
When I propose the parallel to Keller-Hamilton, and ask whether such Cheetos ads could numb consumers to the actual dangers of some foods, she opts not to comment. But it doesn’t require much common sense to spot the strong parallel–Big Food and Big Tobacco have used the same playbook for a long time–and to be a more skeptical consumer once you do.