AdBeet: “Hot Dogs Cause Butt Cancer”

Posted on March 13, 2012


Billboard Art Courtesy of PCRM

This billboard is causing a stir in Chicago this week, prompting “Frank talk about hot dogs, cancer” as the Chicago Tribune puts it. The billboard, placed along the Eisenhower Expressway, is sponsored by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and is meant to promote awareness about the link between processed meats and colorectal cancer risk. It’s definitely been getting attention, but will it change public behavior?

That higher consumption of processed meat increases the risk of colon cancer is not new – the scientific community has been studying it for years. However, despite the mounting evidence, Americans still eat 20 billion hot dogs per year, which works out to almost 70 per person. According to PCRM’s press release, “The billboard’s blunt language was prompted by a recent survey showing that a surprising number—39 percent—of Americans do not know what the colon is.” In case you’re in that 39%, the colon is another term for the large intestine, where water is reabsorbed and healthy gut bacteria go to town. Each year, over 50,000 people die of colorectal cancer with more than 140,000 diagnoses. Chicagoans are among the largest consumers of hot dogs and also among the largest victims of colorectal cancer – hence, the well-placed billboard. 

PCRM has been advertising the hot dog-cancer link for years, in surprisingly blunt ways. Check out this TV commercial from 2008:

They’ve also previously posted ads outside the Indy 500, on the highway to the 2009 All-Star game in New Jersey and in Newark Penn Station.

These PCRM ads underscore the larger trend that health ads have been getting more blunt and more graphic. A district judge recently struck down the FDA’s new cigarette warning labels, which carry graphic images of the damage caused by cigarettes. Other countries have been putting gross images on their cigarette boxes for years. But do they work? An article from Discovery News discusses the very encouraging results from several studies which show that after graphic warning labels were adopted, smokers were more likely to pay attention to the health warnings and more likely to consider quitting. “Consider” is the operative word there – the article lists no studies on resulting behavior change or correlation with smoking rates. However, Canada implement graphic warning labels in 2000 and smoking prevalence has dropped from 25% in 1999 to 17% in 2010. As we know, correlation is not causation but perhaps graphic ads combined with other forms of quitting support are the 1-2 punch of awareness and action that combine to lower smoking rates.

Last year, a “gory” HIV commercial by the NYC Health Department had the activist community split – some in favor and some who accused it of  being “sensationalistic.” But, the article quotes a Yale psychology professor who saw some health campaigns better to suited to negative ads than others.

“The advertisement’s critics cited research by Peter Salovey, a psychology professor at Yale, and colleagues, who found that threatening messages did not necessarily lead people to adopting healthier behaviors and could be counterproductive. The researchers also found that many preventive health behaviors, like using sunscreen, could be better promoted through positive than negative messages…

But Dr. Salovey said he had also published research showing that negative-consequence ads did work better for some health campaigns, including one in which low-income minority women were urged to undergo H.I.V. testing.

He added that he could not pass judgment on New York’s condom advertisement. “As our research shows,” he said in an e-mail, “there are situations when messages stressing benefits are more persuasive and other situations when messages stressing the risks of not taking action are more persuasive.””

More recently Georgia was the center of the ad commotion with it’s blunt anti-obesity ads directed at childhood obesity. The TV and print ads feature black and white photos of overweight kids with slogans like “It’s hard to be a little girl if you’re not” and “Fat may be funny to you but it’s killing me”. Some critics felt bad for the kids in the ads, but Maya Walters, who appeared in one ad, was strongly in favor of them: “It’s very provocative and makes people uncomfortable, but it’s when people are uncomfortable that change comes.” Strong4Life promises there will be more ads to come.

While we don’t yet know the efficacy of graphic ads, is there really any downside? Of course, limited marketing budgets mean ad dollars should go to the most effective place, but when nothing else is working shocking ads are worth a shot. Plus, an ad that becomes a news story emerges into the national spotlight, increasing it’s viewership with fewer ad dollars spent. Whether or not hot dog sales at Wrigley Field decrease this season, more people will be wondering what the heck their colon is, and that’s a good start.

Posted in: AdBeet