The Importance of Relevant Emotional Arousal in the Efficacy of Pictorial Health Warnings for Cigarettes


Introduction: Warning labels for cigarettes proposed by Food and Drug Administration (FDA) were rejected by the courts partly because they were thought to be emotionally evocative but have no educational value. To address this issue, we compared three types of smoking warnings: (1) FDA-proposed warnings with pictures illustrating the smoking hazards; (2) warnings with the same text information paired with equally aversive but smoking-irrelevant images; and (3) text-only warnings.
Methods: Smokers recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk were randomly assigned to one of the three conditions. They reported how many cigarettes they smoked per day (CPD) during the past week and then viewed eight different warnings. After viewing each warning, they rated its believability and perceived ability to motivate quitting. One week later, 62.3% of participants again reported CPD during the past week, rated how the warnings they viewed the week before changed their feeling about smoking, rated their intention to quit in the next 30 days, and recalled as much as they could about each of the warnings they viewed.
Results: Compared to the irrelevant image and text-only warnings, FDA warnings were seen as more believable and able to motivate quitting and at the follow-up, produced lower CPD, worse feeling about smoking, and more memory for warning information, controlling for age and baseline CPD.
Conclusions: Emotionally evocative warning images are not effective in communicating the risks of smoking, unless they pertain to smoking-related hazards. In future versions of warning labels, pictorial contents should be pretested for the ability to enhance the health-hazard message.
Implications: Our study shows that contrary to court opinions, FDA-proposed pictorial warnings for cigarettes are more effective in communicating smoking-related hazards than warnings that merely contain emotionally aversive but smoking-irrelevant images. The suggestion that FDA’s proposed warnings employed emotionally arousing pictures with no information value was not supported. Pictures that illustrate the risk carry information that enhances the persuasiveness of the warning. The congruence between pictures and text should be a criterion for selecting warning images in the future.