In an effort to curb teen smoking, tobacco ad regulations currently hold that cigarette ad models must appear to be at least 25 years old. However, according to a new study, when a product is age-restricted, teens desire to model their behavior to that of of older “young people,” or those who are out of the restricted age range. Therefore, the current guidelines appear to be encouraging more teens to smoke, even more so than if the models were their own age.
“The significance of our findings is that, while the cigarette and alcohol industries have agreed to use models that appear to be 25 years of age or older to protect adolescents, their efforts may be having the exact opposite effect,” said study author Cornelia Pechmann, a marketing professor at University of California (UC) Irvine’s Paul Merage School of Business.
“Advertisements for age-restricted products may prompt adolescents to respond to dissatisfaction with their age by behaving like young adults. In the case of tobacco advertisements, more young people may be choosing to smoke as a result.”
For the study, Pechmann and her research team conducted a series of experiments which involved giving a group of adolescents professionally produced mock magazines, then having them answer questions about the magazine’s content.
The questions included personal inquiries about the participants’ intent to smoke in the future. The magazines included different advertisements to test the research hypotheses.
The findings from the first experiment showed that advertisements featuring young (17-year-old) cigarette models actually decreased the adolescents’ intent to smoke. When the ads featured young adult models (25 years old), the adolescents’ intent to smoke increased.
When mid-aged adult models (45 years old) were used, however, the ads had no effect on the participants’ intent to smoke.
“Advertising policy is based on the assumption that certain similarities between the models used in alcohol and tobacco ads, and the consumers who view the ads, are what drive persuasion, especially similarity in age. On the surface, psychological research and theory seems to support this view,” said Pechmann.
“However, our study indicates that adolescents respond differently when the advertised product is age-restricted. This is an important finding, as it may signify a need to change the way we approach advertising guidelines for certain products to protect young people from predatory advertising practices.”
Contrary to the logic guiding the advertising practices of the manufacturers of cigarettes and other age-restricted products, like alcohol, adolescent desire for such products seems to increase when the model is a young adult rather than one of similar age.
Therefore, based on the recent findings, the best policy for protecting adolescents from the advertising of age-restricted products is to use models that appear to be 45 years of age or older.
The findings are published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.