It failed once so let’s try it again

According to a Ministry of Health (Malaysia) survey carried out in 1996, there were 2.4 million smokers in Malaysia. This was a rise of 41% over the number of smokers in 1986. Today the country has about 5 million smokers, about double the number in 1996. One can deduce therefore that the number is doubling every 10 years or so. As of 2003, approximately 49% of all adult males and 5% of all adult females are smokers.

Of most concern is the prevalence of smoking among young Malaysians. 30% of teenage boys aged 12–18 years smoke while smoking among girls doubled from 4.8% in 1996 to 8% in 1999. The prevalence of smokers aged 15 and above has increased from 21% in 1985 to 31% in 2000. This compares with about 21% of the population in the UK who smoke in 2009, down from 45% in 1974.

No data is available on what smoking costs the country but we do know it costs the Canadian government around RM10.5 billion in direct health care and another RM38 billion in lost productivity. Meanwhile revenue from taxes on cigarettes totaled around RM9 billion. Canada is a good benchmark for Malaysia because in 2001 approximately 5.7 million Canadians smoked, about the same as Malaysia.

To combat the rising number of smokers in the country, a number of initiatives have been put into place. These include a rapid rise in the price of cigarettes and a number of health ministry driven initiatives to alert smokers to the dangers of smoking.

The first of these initiatives was an anti smoking campaign launched in 1991, in conjunction with the National Healthy Life Style Campaign. This extensive campaign that ran for over 10 years raised the level of awareness of the hazards of smoking among the general public, both smokers and non-smokers.

The “Tak Nak” campaign was initially launched in 2003 and consisted of TVCs, Radio, print and Outdoor (including school notice boards). Costing almost RM18 million (US$5 million) for the first year, and rumoured to cost in total RM100 million for the 5 year campaign, it was widely lambasted in the media.

This is because although the campaign raised the awareness of the effects of smoking, it did little to reduce the number of smokers. Even the Health Minister Datuk Dr Chua Soi Lek said in 2005 that there was no indication that the number of smokers had gone down since the campaign began.

Despite the ineffectiveness of this campaign, in August 2009, The Malaysia Ministry of Health launched the latest (and most harrowing) installment (see video) of its anti-smoking “Tak Nak” campaign via TVCs. The TVC’s feature gruesome images of mouth cancer and lost limbs due to gangrene caused by smoking.

This campaign follows the legislation, earlier this year that all cigarette packets sold in Malaysia must carry graphic images related to smoking. These include images of the results of neck cancer and a dead foetus. Displaying these graphic images on cigarette packets is a requirement of the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco control of which Malaysia is a signatory.

It’s not clear if the latest series of graphic commercials that are obviously designed to shock, and the images on cigarette packets are part of a strategic plan or two independent tactical campaigns.

I’m not sure what the goals of the latest campaign are but I am sure they do not want to simply raise awareness of the dangerous side effects of smoking. I would imagine the goals include reducing the numbers of smokers in Malaysia and discouraging young adults of both sexes from taking up the habit.

If these are the goals then one has to question whether or not this is the best tactic. Certainly evidence from previous campaigns in Malaysia and other countries suggests that campaigns featuring shocking images and graphic descriptions of the consequences of smoking using old economy tools such as TVCs, print ads and outdoor are ineffective.

Malaysia spent RM100 million over 5 years on such a campaign that was inneffective in bringing down the number of smokers in Malaysia. In the UK, after extensive research of more than 8,500 smokers over a ten-year period, the Institute for Social and Economic research found that the warnings on cigarette packets that smoking kills or maims are ineffective in reducing the number of smokers.

Likewise, chilling commercials or emotionally disturbing programs are also ineffective. The study also discovered that when a close family member become ill from the effects of smoking, the smoker takes no notice. In fact, according to the study, smokers only reduce the number of cigarettes or sometimes quit when their own personal health is at stake.

And even failing health may not persuade a smoker to reduce or even stop smoking because smoking is linked to a lack of psychological wellbeing and often failing health results in psychological decline.

I have a hunch that this campaign will not reduce the number of smokers in Malaysia. Data shows that traditional marketing tools are even less effective today than they were 10 years ago.

What is required is a data driven approach to the issue. Specific and comprehensive qualitative research with relevant targeted questions related to each segment (and each segment will be specific and targetted) that are designed to deliver actionable data. It is imperative that the audience is identified and then communicated with using content that resonates with them. It will be a long term effort. That doesn’t mean repeating the same one size fits all commercials or messages, this means developing a relationship with these partners through engagement.

Also critical to the development of the strategy will be the buy in from stakeholders such as doctors, educators, retailers and others. Discussions must be held with these key elements to determine strategies. Once research is completed and analysed, a comprehensive strategy must be developed featuring a fully integrated program to communicate with all stakeholders with specific emphasis on education at kampung level and dynamic, preventative programmes for schools. Existing smokers will be targetted individually through interviews with doctors, rather than one-size-fits all shock and awe campaigns.

Only once the strategic blueprint is ready can the implementation begin. There is no easy way to reduce the number of smokers in Malaysia. It’s going to take a long term investment in time, effort and money. Wasting money on creative driven campaigns that have not worked in the past is not the way forward.

Warning: Viewer discretion advised.


4 thoughts on “It failed once so let’s try it again

  1. Well put argument. This campaign as like its predecessors will come and go. Effectiveness very questionable. The question is is there anyone out there who, passionately, wants to make a difference?
    Smokers will quit only when they are convinced. The negative route is a utter failure. Psychological studies have shown that the human mind, when faced with shock/trauma tends to blank out the same. The effects of these commercials would be akin to that.
    On the other hand, understanding what and why the youth take up smoking, what makes a middle-aged man puff his life away knowing the dangers well, can lead to strong, segmented strategies. Which when executed would bring in the desired change ie reduction in smokers numbers.


  2. Excellent points. The facts and figures you bring up only provide more solid support to what we thought we already knew – TVCs like the latest Tak Nak effort are ineffective on its own.


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