Teens Care About Impression and Appearance
  Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

What should you say that matters to the party you want to convey your message to?  Corporate America, especially the tobacco companies, are extremely deft in crafting messages that deliver results.     

Parents, teachers, and health educators are frustrated by the fact that the more they tell children about the horrible effects of smoking, the more defiant and determined they get to light their next cigarette.  Adults can show children the most startling pictures of patients with black lungs, emphysema, throat and mouth cancer but teens can look at them without letting it even touch them.  Teens tend to react to such horrible scenarios with a dismissive attitude such as, "What has it got to do with me?,"  "It wouldn't happen to me," or "I just smoke now and then."  There are limitless ways human beings can employ to defend what they really want to go on doing.  

You can't scare teens into doing something or discourage them from doing what they are motivated to do.  Message research shows that teens care more about what their peers think of them, at present, than about a remote possibility of getting some horrible illness in the future.  
Teens are likely to be more concerned about their families and friends getting cancer, emphysema, or other horrible illnesses than they are about becoming victims themselves.  Educating teens regarding the harmful effects of passive smoking on their family and friends is found to be more effective.  Likewise, ads showing non-smoking peer role mode are found to be effective. 

The reason why Joe Camel ads were so effective was that they represented smoking as fun and a part of "good life."  Thus, smoking became "cool," strong enough to dissolve the resistance cultivated by parents and teachers.  A study shows that by the time children reach junior high school, many of them come to the conclusion that smoking won't hurt them and it's a cool thing to do. 

An effective way to encourage people to change their behavior is to change their perception of that behavior.  When people begin to view smoking, alcohol, or drugs as a normal and cool behavior within their peer group, they choose to do the same.  

One antismoking campaign used the same principle.  The designers of this campaign showed children a variety of commercials featuring non-smoking peer role models.  They found that the children were less likely to smoke four years later than children not exposed to the campaign.  

For some behaviors, especially in the case of teens, peers exercise more influence than parents do.  In fact research shows that when there is a conflict between the dictates of one's peers and those of parents, peer influence wins.  Therefore, agents of change who are in the business of promoting pro-social and pro-health behaviors among children should seek help of positive peer role models.  

To continue with the antismoking messages, research shows that revealing the tactics of cigarette advertisements, termed as "industrial manipulation," were provocative but they did not influence children's intent to smoke, one way or the other.  Just telling people what not to do doesn't cut it.  You have to tell them how to cope with the counter pressures and what they better things they should do, instead.  Your message has to be for something rather than against something.    

Right now tobacco industry has the key and we don't until we can show children that not smoking is cool and smoking is not.  We have to help them change their perception of smoking within their peer culture.  For example, most teens can name a favorite cigarette ad but only a few can a favorite antismoking ad.  Until an antismoking ad can grab their attention and imprint in their long-term memory, they will continue to experiment with smoking.  

Here is an action plan for effective antismoking messages in order to build children's resistance against smoking:  1.  Highlight children who enjoy life without smoking.  2.  Let their peer role mode show specifically how to refuse a cigarette 3.  Emphasize that most children don't smoke and don't approve of smoking.         

       Impressions and appearances are a major driving force in teen years.  Some of the most frequently occurring thoughts in adolescence are, "How do I look?"  "How do I appear to my peers and what impression will they get of me?''  Message research regarding the dangers of unsafe driving shows that possibility of disfigurement has a greater impact on teens than that of death. 
An antismoking billboard somewhere in California shows a handsome young man and a woman.  The young man who is about to light the cigarette in his mouth asks her, "Mind if I smoke?" and the woman counters with a question of her own, "Care if I die?'  This billboard is proven to curb teens' desire to start smoking.        

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