Smokers Are Suckers: Should Incongruous Metaphors Be Used in Public Health Prevention?

Article (PDF Available)inAmerican Journal of Public Health 101(2):203-4 · February 2011with122 Reads
DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.2010.197996 · Source: PubMed
Smokers Are
Suckers: Should
Metaphors Be
Used in Public
‘‘It’s easy to quit smoking. I’ve
done it hundreds of times’’
—Mark Twain
There is no real need to question
anymore why so many efforts are
made in the war against tobacco.
As most are now aware, smokers
are not the only people endan-
gered by tobacco use. The latest
World Health Organization esti-
mates reveal that in the United
States alone, 50 000 people die
each year from environmental
tobacco smoke, constituting ap-
proximately 11% of all tobacco-
related deaths; this number rea-
ches almost 80 000 in Europe.
Many countries have made great
strides in trying to reduce tobacco
use within their borders, but in
a few such places the tobacco
epidemic rages on, particularly in
emerging markets like China and
In light of these sobering
facts, associations of nonsmokers
worldwide have joined govern-
ments and nongovernmental or-
ganizations in creating various
public awareness campaigns
warning of the dangers of tobacco
Recently, measures to fight to-
bacco were taken to a whole new
level in France thanks to—or be-
cause of, depending on one’s sen-
sibilities—a campaign sponsored
by an association called Les Droits
des Non Fumeurs (Nonsmokers’
Rights) featuring the slogan
‘‘smoking makes you tobacco’s
slave.’’ The strength of the cam-
paign, however, lies in the picto-
rial, incongruous metaphor at the
core of the strategy: the image
shows an adolescent on his knees,
facing a standing adult male in
a posture that clearly evokes an
act of sexual submission.
image leaves little room for
alternate interpretation as the
adult holds the younger’s head
with one hand while the adoles-
cent holds a cigarette in his
Using the aforementioned cam-
paign as an example, one can
easily see a real paradigm shift in
the strategies employed to prevent
adolescents from smoking. After
years of playing the fear card,
including graphic depictions of the
consequences of tobacco use,
surprise is now the prevailing
emotion. This new strategy and its
nonverbal incongruous metaphor
most easily described as ‘‘smokers
are suckers’’ invokes such an
emotion from the consumer by
associating smoking with some-
thing even less acceptable: teen-
agers being forced by adults to
perform sexual acts. The move is,
to say the least, quite a gamble.
There is indeed an obvious risk
of cognitive interference between
the message perceived by con-
sumers and the one supposed to
strike us: smoking is bad for
others too.
At the scientific level, Lakoff
and Johnson’s theory of concep-
tual metaphors in cognitive lin-
accounts for the strategy
behind this disruptive campaign.
Simply put, a metaphor is what
makes us experience something in
terms of something else by map-
ping from a source domain
(suckers) to a target domain
(smokers) that are generally dis-
tinct from one another.
Although the theory of con-
ceptual metaphors allows us to
grasp the logic behind the com-
munication strategy, it cannot ac-
count entirely for the subsequent
reactions it triggered. During an
experiment aiming at transmitting
attitudes through advertising, the
effects of various metaphors have
been measured.
It appears that
the effects of those rhetoric tricks
rely mostly on their artful devi-
More precisely, for a meta-
phor to be efficient and to change
consumers’ beliefs, it needs to be
and, ipso facto, lead
to surprise. In other words, no-
body expected a nonverbal meta-
phor on smoking to take not only
a sexual turn, but also an illegal
one by depicting the tobacco in-
dustry as a sexual predator and to
a certain extent evoke submission
for capital gain. As a result, the
metaphor therefore moves from
artful deviation to discrepancy.
Metaphors are an efficient tool
for impacting public opinion and
reinforcing public policy, and their
use for such purposes is nothing
new. For instance, control or mil-
itary metaphors are often used in
public health prevention, includ-
ing campaigns targeting tobacco
use. This was the case in early
2003 when the deadly severe
acute respiratory syndrome
(SARS) spread in 37 countries.
The metaphor employed in the
UK’s media coverage was ‘‘SARS
Wallis and Ner-
lich accurately pointed the exis-
tence of ‘‘an overlap between the
Killer metaphor and traditional
militaristic metaphors: both rely
February 2011, Vol 101, No. 2 | American Journal of Public Health Editorial | 203
on an independent set of FORCE
The French case took a differ-
ent tack from most public health
prevention campaigns, however,
with the move from the ‘‘tobacco
is a killer’’ metaphor to ‘‘smokers
are suckers’’; in fact, they deviated
largely from all marketing codes
of conduct by associating smoking
with moral rather than health
consequences. And to a certain
extent, the campaign worked.
People were surprised, if not up-
set, because the image was inter-
preted by consumers in light of
their past experiences, eliciting in
many cases a surprising de
The fact that the image is not
explicit makes the campaign an
even more likely topic for discus-
sion, as is evidenced by the public
debate in France and worldwide.
If people manage to get past
the obvious sexual reference and
end up making the connection be-
tween the image and smoking, the
‘‘smokers are suckers’ metaphor
leaves no room at all for a positive
interpretation. This intense nega-
tivity could be viewed as a positive
from the perspective of fighting
tobacco use. Although strong
doubts exist as to the way the pub-
lic opinion perceived the cam-
paign, the tobacco industry seems
to have received the message per-
fectly well: it is extremely unhappy
to be pictured as a pedophile.
The Nonsmokers’ Rights Asso-
ciation sees the matter differently,
arguing that the campaign was
merely a novel strategy that sought
to garner the attention of young
people on a major public health
issue that concerns them deeply.
Time and the result of the political
debate that unraveled in France
told us the organization did not
make a smart move. So far, though,
it is clear that the big winner of this
controversy is the marketing
agency that designed the campaign.
This public discussion surround-
ing the campaign has certainly
surpassed their wildest expecta-
tions, particularly given that only
15000 campaign flyers have been
printed and space in only two
magazines has been purchased.
Besides, it seems that most of
the young people, to whom the
campaign was primarily directed,
were not as shocked as many of
the adults who saw the image. This
may mean, then, that the campaign
missed its mark because it did not
have the desired effect on its target
audience. Metaphors are only suc-
cessful if their meaning is under-
stood by the people they target.
Lakoff and Johnson accurately
remind us that ‘‘In allowing us to
focus on one aspect of a concept
... a metaphorical concept can
keep us from focusing on other
aspects of the concept that are
inconsistent with that meta-
The ‘‘smokers are
suckers’’ metaphor problem carries
an ambiguity. From one point of
view, it can support public policy
by presenting smokers as victims
and tobacco and its manufacturers
as aggressors. The public opinion
might have perceived this initiative
as a strong support for victims.
However, by judging from reac-
tions to this campaign—ranging
from French government officials
to journalists and bloggers world-
wide—the word is almost exclu-
sively down on the use of sexual
submission in a public prevention
campaign. The metaphor is so
powerful it leaves no room for
a constructive public policy debate
between the involved stakeholders
given that, for example, the criticism
can expand to any government
collecting taxes from tobacco sales,
making them guilty by association.
Hence, not surprisingly, almost
nothing is known regarding the
concrete actions the Nonsmokers’
Rights Association might effectively
be taking to fight smoking.
As suggested by a governmen-
tal report recently published in
France, an option to improve the
efficiency of strategies in public
health prevention could be
a more systematic use of behav-
ioral and brain sciences when de-
signing them.
Recent work in
this field provides insights re-
garding how public service an-
nouncements about smoking
should be tailored to encourage
better consumer recall.
The war against tobacco is cer-
tainly a tough one. But we’d rather
fight with finely crafted strategies
rather than poorly designed
weapons of mass communication
that can lead to collateral damages.
ric Basso, MSc
Olivier Oullier, PhD, MSc
About the Authors
ric Basso is with the Graduate School
of Management and the Center for Research
in Economics and Management, University
of Rennes 1, Rennes, France. Olivier Oullier
is with the Cognitive Psychology Laboratory,
University of Provence and CNRS, Aix-
Marseille Universite
, Marseille, France, and the
Center for Strategic Analysis, Paris, France.
Correspondence should be sent to Olivier
Oullier, Laboratoire de Psychologie
Cognitive (UMR 6146), Universite
Provence & CNRS, 3 place Victor Hugo, Pole
3C Case D, 13331 Marseille cedex 3,
France (e-mail: Reprints
can be ordered at by
clicking the ‘‘Rep rints/Eprints’ link.
This editorial was accepted April 22,
ric Basso and Olivier Oullier
contributed to this editorial equally.
The authors thank Gwenola Bargain,
Julien Bouille
, Matthieu Mandard, and
Erwann Michel-Kerjan for feedback on
early versions of the editorial.
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204 | Editorial American Journal of Public Health | February 2011, Vol 101, No. 2
    • "Figurative metaphors deviate artfully from expectations (Phillips & McQuarrie, 2009). However, if figurativeness is too disruptive, the metaphor may be unsuccessful, as demonstrated by some anti-smoking campaigns that led the targeted population to misunderstand the metaphor's intended meaning (Basso & Oullier, 2011; Bremer & Lee, 1997). Therefore, it would be interesting to attempt to account for the impact of the visual perspective on highly figurative metaphors and the potential disruption of health-oriented campaigns. "
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