In Effort to Cut Teen Smoking, the FDA Rolls with Some Fifty Bits Design

The FDA’s new anti-smoking campaign is getting kudos for a savvy approach that proponents say is likely to be more effective among teens than previous attempts.


The campaign seems to leverage three key psychological forces:

  1. Now vs. Later.  People – and especially teens – significantly down weight events that happen in the future.  This is a challenge, because smoking is pleasant in the present but risky down the road. Rather than focus on the long-term effects of smoking, the new campaign zeroes in on the nastiness that can happen in the here and now: bad breath, bad teeth, bad skin.
  2. Us vs. Me.  We are all wired to be exquisitely aware of what’s expected of us, and how we are doing relative to our peers.  How we appear to those around us matters a lot more than how hard our arteries are (unfortunately).  And by reframing nicotine addiction as “loss of control,” the ads focus in on an attribute highly valued by teens: independence.
  3. Losses vs. Gains.  People tend to work a lot harder to avoid losses than they do to pursue gains.  Rather than focusing on the good things that can happen when one stops smoking, the campaign instead focuses on all the bad things that happen when one continues smoking — loss of teeth, loss of control, bad breath.  For current smokers, this makes the status quo a loss.

The FDA is pulling the lever that all great advertising campaigns use: reframing.  They’re using clever language and arresting images to reframe smoking as an immediate threat to teens and their peers.  It’s a very promising example of fifty bits design.

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