Colorado State University Professor Launches Two-Year Study of Tobacco Advertising’s Influence on Teen-Agers

A Colorado State University marketing professor will study whether restrictions on tobacco advertisements change perceptions of smoking enough to dissuade teens from picking up the habit.

Associate Professor Kathleen Kelly will compare the effects on adolescents of so-called tombstone tobacco advertising–black and white ads with no pictures or other graphics–with image advertisements that promote tobacco products using colorful pictures and catchy phrases. The two-year study also will measure reactions to the two different types of tobacco advertising by teen smokers vs. non-smokers and by teens from different ethnic backgrounds.

About 350 teen-agers in Colorado schools will participate in the $305,000 project, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a philanthropic group that funds research and programs related to health care issues.

Kelly is currently selecting image ads and creating tombstone ads with restrictions similar to those proposed by the federal government. The ads will be viewed by teens in controlled experiments next fall. The research team is still finalizing which schools in Colorado will be involved.

"We will probably never be able to prove that certain kinds of advertisements cause someone to start smoking, but how the advertisements fit in as part of a person’s decision to take on those habits can be better understood with this study," Kelly said.

"We want to know if their opinions of smoking and smokers or expectations of how a product will perform is impacted by the advertising to which they are exposed." The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has proposed regulations that would restrict tobacco companies to using only tombstone ads in publications where youth would likely see them. A federal judge recently upheld the FDA’s overall proposal to regulate tobacco as a drug, but did not support the agency’s call for restrictions on tobacco advertisements. President Bill Clinton, arguing that tobacco companies are targeting teens with image advertisements, pledged to fight for the restrictions.

But whether these kinds of restrictions are effective in curbing teen-age smoking is unknown, Kelly said. Similar studies on alcohol advertising show that image advertising makes an impression on young adults. However, no research has analyzed perceptions of smoking by teens by comparing image advertising with tombstone advertising.

Despite legal restrictions on their purchase, Kelly points out that alcohol and cigarettes are the two substances most frequently used by adolescents. A recent national survey reported that one-fourth of all eighth-grade students used enough alcohol to get drunk and almost half of them had tried cigarettes.

"We know that advertising imagery is very attractive to youth, which is an important fact to remember when talking about this issue because most adults who smoke say they started before age 18," Kelly said.

The professor’s research over the past several years has focused on the influence of alcohol and tobacco advertising on youth. Kelly recently completed an innovative advertising campaign in which teen-age girls from rural communities across the country helped develop ads that stressed the dangers of smoking and drinking during pregnancy. The $586,000 project was funded with a grant from the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention.