Connie Pechmann
Marketing professor Connie Pechmann studies the effects of anti-smoking campaigns on teen cigarette use. Daniel A. Anderson / University Communications

Selling anything to teens can be tricky business. UC Irvine marketing professor Connie Pechmann discovered, for instance, that ads designed to turn adolescents away from cigarettes can instead encourage them to rebelliously light up. Yet even she was taken aback by results from her latest study.

Pechmann had local high school students watch a TV sitcom in which a character was shunned by his friends for smoking. Viewers reported in a follow-up questionnaire that it turned them off to smoking. So far, so good.

Then she showed the program to another group of students – only this time producers had added an epilogue disclosing the educational content and an 800 number.

“The epilogue was a disaster,” Pechmann says. “People don’t like to be manipulated. They didn’t expect that from their favorite character or TV show. It had a complete boomerang effect.”

Such findings, soon to be published in the Journal of Marketing Research, have made Pechmann a sought-after expert on the effect of advertising and mass media on adolescent behavior. She’s worked with national and state public health organizations to combat drug use and obesity, but anti-smoking efforts remain a primary focus.

“I was brought up to believe that you should try to leave the world a better place,” Pechmann says, “so before I agree to do any project, I ask myself: ‘Will this help people?’ That’s my criterion.”

She’s currently working with investigators in France and China to test warnings on cigarette packs. The labels are larger than those in the U.S. “We could save millions of lives just by changing these labels,” Pechmann says.

And she’s gathering data on which images most effectively reduce intent to smoke — comparing, for example, a positive image of a healthy nonsmoker on a treadmill to a negative one of a smoker on his deathbed.

Testing anti-smoking graphics, ads and other media is crucial, she says, because they can be useless or even backfire.

“Any ad that shows attractive people smoking or using drugs can be counterproductive,” Pechmann says. “It’s the forbidden-fruit effect. We tested anti-drug commercials that we had carefully mapped out and found one-quarter backfired.

“One featured a guy lounging around all day on the couch. It was trying to show how drugs sap your motivation and energy. But some kids felt, ‘What’s so bad about sitting on a couch watching TV?’ You’ve got to get into their minds, and that’s hard.”

She has found one approach that works: disapproving peers.

“It’s way more effective if you show a smoker being shut outside at a party and everyone complaining that the person’s smoke is making their clothes stink or making them cough,” she says. “A message of social condemnation is very powerful.”

Pechmann is now exploring how to use Twitter, Facebook and other social media to help teens resist smoking.