Reverse Advertising: Graphic Warning Labels Show the Sinister Side of Products

(Photo: Maya Silver)What if everything we bought came with a graphic warning label about its impact on life, society and the environment? (Photo: Maya Silver)

On a near daily basis, we are inundated with messages about the benefits of buying. In 2015, $180 billion worth of advertisements polluted our spaces, radio waves and TVs in the United States. These high-dollar promotions insist that an all-inclusive vacation will annihilate anxiety, and a chocolate bar can take the place of a significant other.

Rarely, however, do we hear about the negative effects of our purchases on the environment, other humans or ourselves. We tune out the sped-up list of negative pharmaceutical side effects. The small fine print is too small to bother reading. An article about the exploitation of young children by Hershey’s can be scanned and conveniently forgotten.

But there is one product that, in many countries, broadcasts its ills to the world: tobacco. After finally beginning a slow descent from politicians’ graces, cigarette companies are now often forced to include graphic warning labels on cartons. Rather than showcasing a beautiful young couple bonding over Virginia Slims, cigarette packaging must now help the potential buyer envision the lung cancer and tooth decay its contents may precipitate.

First introduced in Iceland in 1985, graphic warnings on cigarette labels began to spread in the early 2000s in spite of industry opposition. The Bulletin of the World Health Organization records Canada as the first country to require graphic warning labels in 2001, with many more countries following suit, including Brazil, Thailand and Australia.

Substantial evidence demonstrates that consumers are more likely to notice graphic warning labels than text-only labels. Graphic labels have also proven more effective at motivating smokers to quit.

Inspired by the effectiveness of graphic warning labels, I envisioned a reverse advertising strategy replicated in the realm of other goods. What if, like cigarette cartons,…

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