Leading Article: Negative ads can work

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The Independent Online
KNOCKING COPY works. Forget comedy, romance or the sell based on science: people, it seems, are persuaded by nothing as much as hard- hitting criticism. According to a study in The Journal of the American Medical Association adverts directed against the tobacco companies and their political cronies turned out to be more effective in stopping people smoking than factual messages trying to persuade them of the health risks.

The key words were "deceitful and manipulative". If cigarette companies were made out to be dishonest and unscrupulous, they were "delegitimised" and people started to ask themselves hard questions about their own behaviour. Becoming aware of what lies behind the tobacco industry's own advertising, smokers measurably changed their ways. It is not an isolated finding. There is European evidence that on controversial issues such as the use of fur by the fashion trade it is the blood-on-the-pelt approach that works best. How many other institutions are there that might be targeted in this way as deceitful and manipulative ... pharmaceuticals, finance houses, certain food producers?

Yet knocking copy has its limits. People in this country say they dislike negative campaigning by political parties, though there is also evidence of its effectiveness. Consumers have an abiding sense of fairness. Shrill- voiced campaigns can be counter-productive, if they make people start to feel an industry or product is being victimised. But that is not something the public are ever likely to feel about tobacco.