Mulling over the federal judge’s decision early this week, I noted that the court ruled graphic images and bold warning labels would harm tobacco companies’ free speech rights. As a result, the judge halted the FDA plans to require new warnings and graphics on cigarette packs in 2012.
Then news broke from Australia that the parliament passed a law requiring cigarette packs to have drab colors in addition to graphic warnings and images.
In other words, cigarette packs would need to drop colors or messages that make the product seem appealing.
What’s interesting are the ways in which policy-makers use science—or the lack of science–to make such judgments.
For example, the judge in the US case wrote that the graphic images adopted by the FDA were “more about shocking and repelling than warning.” The judge noted that the role of the FDA was to provide “factual information.” Period.
Media scholars will attest that shock value, just like beauty, rests in the eye of the beholder. Personally I find most of the FDA images tame. Take, for example, the photo of a man with a cigarette in hand, and a plume of smoke arising from a hole in his throat. But here’s the thing: the man’s face has been cropped in the photo frame so we don’t see forehead, hairs, eyes and nose.
In other words, the image lacks character and soul. The man is nearly faceless.
Media researchers have found that viewers are much less likely to identify with a photo when we can’t see the full face. That’s why feminist scholars object to images of naked woman that are headless: such imagery objectifies women, and we focus instead on the body as detached from the person.
The judge said the images were shocking but I have a different perspective: the faceless and soul-less image actually allows viewers to distance themselves from the photo because it’s hard to identify with a faceless throat.
One of the first rules you learn in persuasion is to pull in the viewer by encouraging her to see herself in the image and message.
But these images don’t do that, and the judge has made a leap of faith without the evidence.
See the FDA warning labels and images at http://www.fda.gov/TobaccoProducts/Labeling/CigaretteWarningLabels/default.htm