A recent study has shown that the NHS anti-smoking campaign Get unhooked was effective, despite being named this week as the UK's most controversial advert in 2007.

The Department of Health advert, showing a graphic image of a man with a fishhook through his cheek to illustrate his addiction, prompted 774 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), according to their Annual Report published this week.

The advert, which carried the slogan: The average smoker needs over five thousand cigarettes a year and gives a helpline number, was one of a campaign of four television, and four print adverts, that were timed to coincide with new year's resolutions.

When launching the campaign, the public health minister, Caroline Flint, said: "Many smokers will be considering stopping as part of their new year's resolution. These adverts highlight the controlling message of tobacco. We know 70 per cent of smokers would like to give up."

The research, led by Dr Ekant Veer at the University of Bath, studied 200 reactions from long-term smokers when shown two different styles of anti-smoking adverts: a graphic image from Get unhooked; and a more gentle British Heart Foundation advert showing a cigarette filled with fatty deposits to illustrate the damage smoking does to the arteries.

The results, which are to be published in the Journal of Strategic Marketing, found that people on the verge of giving up were 22 per cent more likely to make a commitment to quitting after seeing the high-impact Unhooked advert than the Heart Foundation advert. However, those who had no conscious desire to quit reported a seven per cent greater commitment to quitting when presented with the softer, educational, Heart Foundation advert.

Dr Veer, a lecturer in the School of Management, said: "Our results show that the Unhooked ad is more effective for smokers who are prepared to give up smoking in the very near future and need that final push. They indentified with the message about being constrained by their addiction and wanting to be set free.

"Those who were not planning to quit imminently didn't identify with the feeling of being trapped by their cravings and responded better to a more subtle approach.

"In both cases, the message presented by the advertisement is true and valid. However, in the case of Unhooked, the message was good but the delivery too graphic, resulting in a high proportion of complaints.

"Our results show that campaigns would benefit from presenting different levels of advertising which cater for the varying levels of preparedness towards quitting of the people they are targeting."

The ASA Agency revealed that there was the highest ever increase in complaints about advertising in 2007. The number of adverts rose to 14,080, with key complaints being about high levels of violence and misleading claims about being environmental. Over 2,450 adverts were either changed or withdrawn following action from the ASA.

The University of Bath is one of the UK's leading universities, with an international reputation for quality research and teaching. In 20 subject areas the University of Bath is rated in the top ten in the country. http://www.bath.ac.uk

Useful links:

School of Management
Advertising Standards Agency