All governments rely on fear to some extent. Most people don’t pay their taxes out of gratitude for the services and security they receive in return – they pay because they fear the consequences of non-payment. Government advertising plays relentlessly on fear. Cheat the benefit system and we’ll hunt you down like a dog. We know where TV licence dodgers live. Take an unlicensed minicab and you will be raped. Drive too fast and you will kill children. Drive drunk and you will lose your licence, your car and your job.
Fear is naturally an important part of the government’s long-standing war against smoking. Prohibiting smoking outright is politically impossible, restrictions on smoking in public can only go so far, and punitive taxation hurts the poor, so from next year cigarette packets will get new, “shocking” picture warnings meant to scare smokers into quitting. The Department of Health is dropping the old, stark, utilitarian text warning and venturing into packaging design.
But really this is the antithesis of traditional packaging design – it’s
a product designed to deter you from buying it. Effectively, it’s punitive design. By making cigarette packets look vile, smokers suffer an added penalty for their habit. Taking out a packet of cigarettes in mixed company already feels like the social equivalent of announcing an interest in seal-clubbing – the new warnings will make it even harder.
But only three of the 15 designs truly disgust – a blackened lung, a diseased mouth and a truly stomach-turning picture of a huge neck tumour. I would not, as a smoker, want to carry a packet bearing either of the latter two images, and if handed one in a shop would ask for another, even in another brand – an element of consumer choice that suggests that tobacconists might find some packs hard to shift. The other 12 warnings are tame in comparison. The vaunted “positive” messages, encouraging smokers to quit, eschew images altogether, and read like the propaganda messages dropped behind enemy lines in wartime: “Choose freedom! We can help you!” Another couple might as well be purely textual, for all the powerlessness of the images. “Smoking decreases sperm count” carries a picture of some sperm. A warning that smoking is highly addictive is accompanied by an image of a syringe. You have to look twice to see that there’s a cigarette inside the syringe. No doubt the intention is to forge a mental association between smoking and heroin use – something the text “Smoking is more addictive than heroin” would do better.
The underlying trouble with most of these warnings is that smokers have already mentally dissociated themselves from the harm that cigarettes do. There isn’t a single smoker who is unaware of the health risks of their habit, but mortality is too abstract to fully understand as part of the decision to buy cigarettes. “Smoking kills” comes with a picture of a rather sanitised-looking corpse on a slab. But death remains abstract. It’s not a picture of your death. It’s a picture of a dead person you have never met, or even an actor.
How do you overcome this dissociative gulf? The big problem is that these warnings are the products of bureaucrats, committees and consultation. It will be interesting to see how this field of deterrent design evolves, but it will only achieve its full potential if it is given to outside advertising agencies with the freedom and creative capacity to overcome bureaucratic literal-mindedness.