Persuasive communication

Centre for Language Studies | Faculty of Arts | Radboud University Nijmegen

Which Ad Convinces YOU?

Every week this site features a contribution of one of our researchers about communication in research and practice. This week: Afrooz Rafiee, about the persuasiveness of cigarette ads.

Advertisements are specific forms of communication which include messages motivating people to go for products (Stanton, 1984). Computers, clothing, and cell phones are just a few examples of products we see promoted in ads around us all the time. While some advertisements are simple and quickly understandable, others are complicated and more difficult to interpret at a first glance. Anyway, they are often used as tools which help businesses improve by convincing you to buy the product.

However, some ads have a different function: they try to promote an idea (Stanton 1984). To this end, they are not always loyal to businesses, but they may even take a stand against them. One such example is observed in health advertisements and, specifically, non-smoking ads. What makes such advertisements especially interesting is the variety and creativity behind their (visual) messages. While smoking ads are often limited to representing smokers as those with prestigious lifestyles – by showing a handsome man or a beautiful, classy lady who are enjoying their lives while happily smoking – non-smoking ads can be categorized into many different types. Through a simple Google image search, you come to at least ten types of ads: smoking is harmful for society, it is bad for the environment, it wastes money, it wastes time, it is bad for children, it affects unborn babies, it reduces sexual power, it reduces your beauty, it keeps others away from you, it is bad for your health up to where it kills you! They try to convince you not to smoke no matter what: if you don’t care about the environment, society, or money, at least you are bound to care about dying soon!


To what extent the non-smoking ads are effective and can prevent people from buying cigarettes is one issue. But another question is which message affects whom the most. We know that “the audience is a dynamic participant in the argument” and specific arguments persuade specific audiences (Tyler 1992, p. 29). So, it is very understandable that different smokers are convinced by different messages. That is exactly the reason behind creating all these different types of ads. I remember a friend of mine talking about a young man who refused to buy the packet which warned about sexual problems and asked for one warning about lung cancer instead! Although he finally bought and smoked that packet, he still does not accept those with specific non-smoking ads.

Following that, it can be expected that there are also cross-cultural differences in the effectiveness of such ads since “[the] audience comes to the argument [also] with particular cultural beliefs and understanding” (Tyler 1992, p. 29). Are people from different cultures affected differently? For instance, do people in more collectivist societies find the ‘anti-society’ ads more convincing than those in individualist societies? Which ad convinces which culture or sub-culture the most?


Tyler, A.C. (1992). The role of audience in visual communication. Design Issues, 9(1), 21-29.

Stanton, W.J. (1984). Fundamentals of marketing. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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