Remember when cigarette packets were just pretty little boxes with fancy lettering?

Nope, neither do I. For as long as I can recall they've been covered with scary health warnings. And if you light up in the UK or Canada you might even get treated to a graphic image of a diseased lung or some rotting teeth.

As a non-smoker who never worked out how to inhale properly those packets are certainly enough to put me off trying again.

And the deterrent works on others too: nearly two thirds of Canadians in a telephone survey said the warnings made them think about health risks, cut down on ciggies, or increase their motivation to quit.

But can the shock-and-awe approach also get people to improve their eating habits?

Officials at the New York City Health Department say yes. As part of a new campaign to reduce intake of sugary drinks, subway cars will be plastered with posters cautioning riders against ‘pouring on the pounds.' And the exhortation will be bolstered by an arresting visual aid - gristly yellow globs of human fat tissue tumbling forth from a bottle of soda.

(Meanwhile others are also trying to harness fat's potent yuckiness. Visit www.mypetfat.com to purchase your very own five-pound model of human body fat - then put it on top of the Ben and Jerry's and see how hungry you feel when you catch an eyeful during your next attack of the munchies.)

On balance, research does seem to suggest that scary warnings can work.

For example, one recent review paper found that, although people could be successfully persuaded to reduce salt intake or eat more fruits by telling them about the benefits that would be gained, emphasizing the bad consequences of failure to do those things worked equally as well.

And as for the gross-out element, there's every reason to think that pairing an unhealthy item with an innately yucky image should make the attached health message more powerful.

Pictures can speak a thousand words (especially helpful if literacy is a problem), while snappy, visually compelling messages can be highly persuasive. You never know - the poster could even condition an automatic disgust reaction to the sight of a raspberry Snapple.

Of course this is all contingent on commuters paying attention to the ad.

Maybe the only reason the cigarette warnings work is because they sit directly on the packet, impossible to ignore. In contrast, if people find the subway posters repulsive they can always look away. And if they find the fat connection too horrific they could even refuse to acknowledge it and go hunting for a nice sugar fix to cheer them up - a kind of fat-promoting boomerang effect.

The truth is that the posters will probably affect each person differently. After all, while some of us prefer tough love and straight talking, others find pills easier to swallow if they're washed down with something sweet.

Soda, anyone?

 

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