The Power of Disgusting Advertising

We hope to have something meaningful to say in our next book about the efficacy of advertising. This is a huge question that impacts everything from commerce to politics to journalism.

But for now, let me give one example. My kids were recently watching a Yankees-Red Sox day game on TV, broadcast on the YES network. One of the commercials was an anti-smoking ad — placed, I believe, by the City of New York. It was a gritty, documentary-style spot, featuring a surgeon talking to the camera, then showing the patient he was about to operate on. The patient was a man whose toes were blackened and rotting away. The image of the foot was extremely disgusting. “It’s gangrene,” the surgeon said, and then he drew on the man’s leg with a marker to show where he was about to take his hacksaw and cut off the leg.

The ad made a huge impression on my five-year-old daughter. Hours later, she asked out of the blue, “Are you still thinking about that boy’s foot?” She couldn’t eat dinner that night since she was still thinking about the disgusting image. She is definitely more scared of seeing that foot again than she is of seeing the Wicked Witch of the West again. We talked about it for quite a while; I explained that smoking is bad for you, even though in the old days people actually thought smoking was good for you, and now the message they’re sending is that nobody should smoke.

Will this ad work? Will it cause a young person who sees it to never smoke cigarettes? Also, is this kind of imagery appropriate for broadcast during a program — a daytime baseball game — that young kids will be watching?

I blogged earlier about the different factors thought to have caused the big decrease in smoking in New York City in recent years, and advertising was one of them. I will look forward to reading the future research of scholars who set out to measure the impact of ads like this one versus other pressures against smoking, including smoking bans in public places, higher taxes, etc.

Whether or not my daughter ever smokes a cigarette, I have already seen one very real impact of the disgusting gangrene ad: she is a lot less interested in watching TV.

ils vont...

I think the anti smoking campaign commercials are ridiculous. They all seem to be the work of over protective parents, you know the type who make their kids where bike helmets when they are riding in a car. Commercials wont stop kids from smoking, when they get to the age of rebellion they will draw upon memories of those commercials and rebel against their stupid messages. Smoking is without a doubt bad for your health but so are a lot of things. I don't think the commercials will prove effective.


There is an ad on the West Side Highway (NYC) from manhattan mini storage and it says: "Your closet is losing space faster than her right to choose." And it has a picture of a hanger.
I think that this ad might be a little too socially charged for a public highway. What do you think?


If the commercial caused a kid to watch less TV, it's already done a mitzvah, surely. And it makes the adults who produce these commercials feel as if they are doing something useful and virtuous.

BUT It won't stop kids from at least trying out smoking as teenagers, because smoking, drinking, and other "don't" activities are rites of passage. My dad told me that when he was a kid, in the 1920s, he and other children signed pledges, distributed by well-meaning adults, not to try smoking, drinking, or any of those "don't"s. And you can bet when they got old enough, they broke the pledges, because that is what kids do.

And because they believe that gangrene, and misfortune in general is what happens to the other guy. This is why armies like young soldiers: Not just because they are more physically fit, but because at 18 you will charge into a hail of machine-gun fire believing that the bullets will hit the guy in front of you, the guy to your left, they guy to your right, even the guy behind you, but, miraculously, not you.



The NYC ad where they remove the aneurysm is, personally, more provocative.


back in grade school (5th or 6th grade I think), we had an "assembly" as they were called and everyone got to watch an anti-smoking movie in the gym.
It was pretty gross as they showed an operation and were removing part of the lung of a smoker. One girl ran crying from the gym because her parents smoked and she thought this was going to happen to them.
After the movie, some guy demonstrated what smoking does with some jars filled with cotton and he had some "normal" tissue and some "smokers" lung tissue in jars on a table for us to look at.
While I remember it to this day, I also remember the moment I tried smoking and then decided not to. Apparently "sucking" on the cigarette is not the way you smoke. And if your friends laugh at your lame attempts to "smoke" it sort of ruins the point of smoking. So I stopped trying to smoke and my smoking friends stopped laughing at me.
Peer pressure is a much stronger persuader than advertising I think.



I'm sure it will stop some kids. Ads probably stopped me in conjunction with all the other negative messages about smoking. When you are inundated with an idea from all sides then you know what is expected of you. Sure, rebellion might go against that but with smoking...well smoking is just a stupid thing to do and these types of ads show it. Nobody wants their foot coming off or their lungs turning black. Intelligent kids will add 2 things together: 1) it is wrong because everyone says it is, 2) smoking will hurt me. They might want to rebel on #1, but the smart ones will listen to #2.

It is ridiculous to say that telling kids not to do something will make them do it. If that were the case then societies wouldn't just collapse, none could have ever been formed.


Agree with Adam - I believe he's referring to the ad where they remove plaque from a blocked artery in someone's neck. That's what came to mind when I first saw this post. I've never smoked but that certainly disgusted me..although not any more than the Red Sox.


Some organizations do go a little too far. In college, pro-life groups drove large trucks around campus. On the side of the trucks were images of aborted fetuses. Anyway, some cause marketing's appropriateness can definitely be questionable.


Apparently, Manhattan Mini Storage only wants liberals as customers...probably a pretty sound strategy in New York City.

Rita: Lovely Meter Maid

That poor man (with the gangrene foot). I really hoped they handsomely reimbursed him for being the face (or, uh, *Foot*) of evil.

I really much prefer the commercial where that female smoker is wearing a big "S" (for sinner or smoker, I guess it covers both) and being flogged in the town square.

Regarding all this, I carefully took my own child aside (little Rita) and told her: "Now see, if you smoke, people will hate you and want to punish and publicly humiliate you - but it's really just their way of showing they care."

Little Rita then asked me about the man-with-bad- foot commercial: "Mama, will that man die?"

I answered: "Yes, Rita, he probably will die, because he thought smoking was nice and fun, and maybe even cool (but Now we know better, don't we)? That man will die a grim, horrible, dark and wretched death of unrelenting pain - and most likely it will be a tormentingly long, hideously drawn-out, lingering sort of death, too, with nary a second for him to spare in remorse, as the screaming will likely blot out from his mind anything but the sheer, unstoppable, agony of his last, completely meaningless days. "

"Pain such as that is really Worse than death", I mused philosophically to little Rita.

And - I added (just for good measure): "It's quite likely he won't get an open-casket burial, either. Right now, it's just his foot that is affected, but gangrene is a nasty, spreading sort of business, sweetie. A vile, sinister thing that doctors often try, in vain, to fight."

I asked her if she had learned anything from this exchange between us.
She readily answered:

"Yeah: smoking Is bad for you. It's very bad."

I chuckled and told her to go run out and play now(after strapping upon her head the factory reinforced, triple-layered protection play-helmet she wears whenever she ventures from the house (she also has an indoor helmet for those rainy days).

Ah, me. It's never easy to be a parent these days, is it?



In Australia, where I hail from, they have really gruesome ads for smoking and drink driving. The one that I remember from my young adult years also had a surgeon. But he was holding an artery of a deceased person. He said this was what was in the person's artery. He then proceeded to squeeze this pussy looking substance out of the artery. The ad was on TV many times over at least a year.

I think smoking rates in Australia declined after the ads were run (from what I remember, I have no stats to back it up).

I don't think there was anyone in Oz who hadn't seen the ad. And it always makes me wonder why anyone could possibly smoke after seeing it.

The drink driving ones were pretty in your face too (as you could imagine).


I don't think shock advertising is effective at all. Just watch Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, their reaction to the anti-pot ad is typical of how my friends and I all think about such things.
Personally, shock or negative advertising usually gives me negative feelings towards the cause because if it comes across as tasteless.
That goes for negative political ad as well.

In this case, as far as preventing children from taking up the habit, I would find it really difficult to explain to a small child, like my 5 year old, how smoking is related to an gangrene infection. I'm sure it's not targeted at 5 year olds so I also have to question the timing of the ad.


Another naive post. Are you doing this to incite commentary? Your daughter is 5. When she's 15 - or when the average kid is 15 - danger is appealing.

Two quick points. First, I heard Alice Cooper describe how they made up the character and the band to infuriate parents. Kids smoke in part because it's bad for them and because it's rebellious and because it infuriates parents. Five year olds want to please parents. If you can show a link between a grossed out 5 year old and a non-smoking teen, then you may have something. One problem with that, which you likely haven't witnessed yet in your family, is that 5 year olds worry about people generally but teenagers worry about themselves. A teen is much less likely to think any warning applies directly to him or her. That's the way life goes and when your children are teens you'll know what I mean.

Second, research shows that reinforcement of fact often actually reinforces a fiction. As you probably read, they've tested CDC info "fact" vs "myth" and found that people recall the myth as being true and that they believe more strongly in the myth because they connect that misinformation with the CDC as its source.



The true power of adverstising seems to me to be not in any single ad, but in the aggregate. A Marlboro ad may make you want to smoke Marlboro over other cigarettes - but it is the aggregate exposure to cigarette advertising and aestheticization that makes you want to smoke in the first place (ignoring non-marketing-related social pressures).

Thus the anti-smoking lobby should fight fire with fire. No one ad, consciously registered by its viewers, will have comparable effect to the blurred mass of exposure registered unconsciously by its viewers as they develop. This isn't to say that well-made anti-smoking ads aren't useful in deterring potential smokers - but any given handful is not sufficient.

Rhetotic has demonstrated since its inception that the message consciously digested is never as potent as the message subconsciously absorbed.


Forgive what might be a dumb question, but does smoking actually cause one's feet to turn gangrenous?

Mario Ruiz

Hi Stephen,

Couple of notes.

1. I remember Crazy Erik commercials. Very annoying and some time latter he went bankrupt. Maybe it has to do with this too.

2. Please read EGONOMICS. A different book. They claim that at least 6% of all the expenses in American companies belongs to not well managed ego of its executives.

According to them: Best EGO, Obama. The worst: Hillary.

Mario Ruiz


it seems to me that a person's ability to be influenced by outside information (something read, heard, experienced etc.) and the strength of the person's association with the source will affect the outcome of whether a person performs an act or not. Over time, these 2 items ( susceptibility to influence and source linkage strength) so that the resulting action will changes. Only something like a Significant emotional event, that stays with a person over a long time will continue to exert some guiding direction or value to a person it would seem.

Sources such as peer groups, family members are usually strong and contain multiple chances for influencing a person, whereas a weak interaction message such an ad might have to make itself stronger with a disgusting( at least to some people) gangrenous foot.

The TV commercial also seems to point out the time based reaction differences for a 5 year old versus someone older with more experience with disease and its relationship to a vice. the 5 year takes away the reaction that TV may gross me out, so I won't watch it.

These ads will influence some people, but the question is for how long and is the cost of the ad worth the influence or the negative impact to the TV community of running them?



Advertisements don't work - for both sides. Any decline in cigarette smoking with teenagers can be simply summed up in this statement I overheard at a high school "anti-smoking" assembly:

"Why would anyone smoke cigarettes when you can get pot just as easily....?"


not all children are inclined to follow peer pressure to such a level that it would be an effective cause of our behavior. those of us who are wired to get around to our rebellion when we are 25 instead of 15 are a lot more knowledgeable / etc. by the time we rebel.

John Thomson

Today is my birthday. Is this a form of advertisement? Only if I get a present