The Effect of a Video Character's Smoking Status on Young Females' Perceptions of Social Characteristics

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Despite public warnings of the health risks associated with cigarette smoking, as well as advertising bans and educational programs in schools, the percentage of young females who smoke is on the rise. This study examined the effect of a video character's smoking status on young females' perceptions of social characteristics. University students were shown a video of a young woman in a socially oriented role-play. The video portrayed a smoker for the experimental group and a nonsmoker for the control group; in all other respects the video presentations were identical. Both groups answered a questionnaire pertaining to social characteristics they believed she possessed. The experimental group rated the character as more outgoing, more sophisticated, not as easy to manipulate, and less emotional about breaking up with her boyfriend than did the control group. There were no significant differences in ratings of her uncertainty in a crowd, her degree of unpopularity, her ability to be intimidated, the degree othe rs admire her, and her attractiveness. The results are discussed in the light of previous studies, and implications for future research are explored.

Although illegal, the sale of tobacco products to adolescents has continued in Australia (Sanson-Fisher, Schofield, & See, 1992; Carruthers & McDonald, 1995). About 80% of Australian 15-year-olds have smoked at least one cigarette and one third are regular smokers (Department of Health and Community Services, 1990). For 12-year-olds the figures are 20% and 6%, respectively. This suggests that the period between 11 and 15 is critical to the initiation of smoking behavior. As nearly all people who become regular smokers start while still in their teens, smoking has been termed a "pediatric epidemic"; if adolescents can be kept tobacco-free, most will never start smoking (Chapman, 1993).

The young female has become a prime target of cigarette marketing strategies and is seen as offering the largest opportunity for sales increases (Ernster, 1985; Altman, Slater, Albrightt, & Maccoby, 1987; Lee, 1989). Cigarette companies have tried to link smoking with characteristics that appeal to young women. In general, advertisements show cigarette-smoking females who appear to be successful, liberated, broad-minded, sophisticated, witty, popular, attractive, healthy, and happy (Lee, 1989; Potts, Gillies, & Herbert, 1986; Ernster, 1985; Warner, 1986).

Although in Australia cigarettes may not be advertised on television and in print media, cigarette companies still gain exposure on television and in magazines through sponsorship of sporting events (e.g., the Winfield Rugby League Cup), beauty contests, and having celebrities "endorse" their products by displaying them in movies. There has also been an increased amount of exposure in women's magazines (Ernster, 1985), where cigarette smoking has been associated with weight loss (e.g., Weight Watchers) and with independence and liberation from the traditional female role (e.g., Ms).

Though there appears to be widespread knowledge of the health issues, young females have greatly increased their smoking behavior, which almost equals that of boys (Jensen, Peterson, Murphy, & Emmerling, 1992; Taukli, Smith, & Heaton, 1990; Waldron, Lye, & Brandon, 1991). In a study on tobacco and alcohol use among Australian secondary school students aged 12 to 17 years, Hill, Willcox, Gardner, and Houston (1987) found that the prevalence of smoking behavior (at least one cigarette per week) rose through age 15 to 34% among girls and 29% among boys. Among those who smoked, the number of cigarettes consumed rose with age from 14 cigarettes per week at age 12 to 42 at age 17 for boys, and from 7 to 34 for girls. In a later study, Hill, White, Williams, and Gardner (1993) found that prevalence of smoking peaked at 25% for 16-year-old boys and 29% for 15-year-old girls. From the age of 13, smoking was more prevalent among girls than boys, although boys were the heavier smokers. …

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