14.1 Mass media public education campaigns: an overview

Last updated: November 2019  

Suggested citation: Cotter, T, Durkin, S, Bayly M. 14.1 Mass media public education campaigns: an overview. In Scollo, MM and Winstanley, MH [editors]. Tobacco in Australia: Facts and issues. Melbourne: Cancer Council Victoria; 2019. Available from https://www.tobaccoinaustralia.org.au/chapter-14-social-marketing/14-1-social-marketing-and-public-education-campaig

Mass media public education campaigns for tobacco control generally use commercial marketing techniques to influence the knowledge, attitudes and ultimately the behaviours of individuals, groups, organisations and society as a whole.1 This marketing approach is often referred to as ‘social marketing’. Unlike commercial marketing approaches, where the beneficiary is the originator or shareholder, social marketing campaigns are designed to benefit the recipient of the message.

Public education campaigns work directly to change behaviour. Large proportions of populations are exposed to messages designed to affect individuals’ decision-making.2 Campaigns can also operate indirectly, by setting an agenda for interpersonal and public discussion that can lead to changes in social norms or public policy.2

Public education campaigns have been used since the 1970s and are now viewed within comprehensive tobacco-control programs as essential for discouraging uptake as well as motivating and encouraging smokers to quit. These campaigns also increase community understanding and recognition of the harms associated with tobacco smoking and facilitate policy initiatives to reduce this harm.

Public education campaigns are expensive to produce and broadcast, and effective campaigns need medical, behavioural and marketing expertise to ensure that their content is scientifically accurate and their presentation effective.2 Formative research identifies and defines campaign goals and objectives and informs the development of creative executions for pre-testing, production and implementation. The choice of media channel and frequency of airing are equally important, to ensure the target population sees the material often enough for it to be remembered and acted upon.

Evidence from controlled field experiments and population studies conducted by investigators in many countries shows that anti-tobacco public education campaigns can reduce and prevent tobacco use.3-6 Campaigns that depict the negative health effects of smoking and arouse negative emotions, and are broadcast with sufficient reach and intensity, have been shown to be most effective at a population level. While the media landscape is evolving with the emergence of social media and new media channels such as digital subscription services, television remains a highly effective medium for reaching the population.

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1. Donovan R and Henley N. Social marketing. Principles and practice. Melbourne: IP Communications, 2003.

2. Jamrozik K. Population strategies to prevent smoking. British Medical Journal, 2004; 328(7442):759-62. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15044295

3. National Cancer Institute. Part 4-Tobacco control and media interventions, in The Role of the Media. Smoking and Tobacco Control Monograph no. 19. Bethesda MD: US Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute; 2008.  Available from: http://cancercontrol.cancer.gov/tcrb/monographs/19/index.html

4. Wakefield M, Durkin S, Spittal M, Siahpush M, Scollo M, et al. Impact of tobacco control policies and mass media campaigns on monthly adult smoking prevalence: time series analysis. Am J Public Health, 2008; 98:1443-50. Available from: http://www.ajph.org/cgi/content/abstract/98/8/1443

5. Durkin S, Brennan E, and Wakefield M. Mass media campaigns to promote smoking cessation among adults: an integrative review. Tob Control, 2012; 21(2):127-138. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/21/2/127.abstract 

6. US Department of Health and Human Services. Efforts to Prevent Tobacco Use Among Young People: Review of the effectiveness of Mass Media Campaigns, in Preventing tobacco use among youth and young adults: a report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta, Georgia: US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health; 2012.  Available from: http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/sgr/2012/index.htm .