Turning negative into positive: public health mass media campaigns and negative advertising

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Abstract

Literature suggests that ‘negative advertising’ is an effective way to encourage behavioral changes, but it has enjoyed limited use in public health media campaigns. However, as public health increasingly focuses on non-communicable disease prevention, negative advertising could be more widely applied. This analysis considers an illustrative case from tobacco control. Relying on internal tobacco industry documents, surveys and experimental data and drawing from political advocacy literature, we describe tobacco industry and public health research on the American Legacy Foundation’s “truth” campaign, an example of effective negative advertising in the service of public health. The tobacco industry determined that the most effective advertisements run by Legacy’s “truth” campaign were negative advertisements. Although the tobacco industry’s own research suggested that these negative ads identified and effectively reframed the cigarette as a harmful consumer product rather than focusing solely on tobacco companies, Philip Morris accused Legacy of ‘vilifying’ it. Public health researchers have demonstrated the effectiveness of the “truth” campaign in reducing smoking initiation. Research on political advocacy demonstrating the value of negative advertising has rarely been used in the development of public health media campaigns, but negative advertising can effectively communicate certain public health messages and serve to counter corporate disease promotion.

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