WHAT’S bulbous, comically gruesome and worth around £2.7 million? The answer is not, in fact, London mayor Boris Johnson, but the government’s new anti-smoking campaign.

The initiative is the first of its kind to run in the UK since images of fat-dripping cigarettes made the nation feel queasy in 2004.

After an eight-year break from grimagery you’d think the Department of Health might now have something really quite sickening up its sleeve. So what is it? Well, explains the chief medical officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies: “People will see a man smoking and then a cancer growing out of the cigarette.”

Having read this, it’s possible you are now experiencing vague feelings of anticlimax. The campaign, with its greatly exaggerated depiction of a growing tumour, is an attempt to combat the denial of more than a third of smokers who still think that the health risks of their habit are wildly overstated.

But the problem with photo-shock in an age of Photoshop is that we are all too aware much of what we see on billboards and TV has been digitally manipulated. We’re not just getting more sceptical about shock tactics in advertising, we’re getting more stoical.

While the new anti-smoking campaign has been repeatedly described as “hard-hitting”, shock, in general, is losing its ability to pack a punch. With gruesome YouTube videos clocking up millions of views, it’s fair to say we’re becoming inured to what used to stop us in our tracks.

This is not to say that shock is now irrelevant, simply that the nature of it has changed. The best ads are those that subtly use shock to nudge people into a reassessment of their ideas. One example is Metro Trains Melbourne’s recent safety campaign: an animated video called Dumb Ways to Die that has had over 35 million viewings.

The video contains severed limbs and gushing blood but the gore is cartoon-like and set to a humorous jingle. The shock factor derives not from animated accidents but from the gradual realisation that your careless behaviour isn’t just stupid, it makes you look stupid.

In the decades since cigarettes were acknowledged to be cancer in a pretty box, there have been countless ad campaigns trying to get people to give up. However, in those same decades shock has gradually become a subtle part of smoking’s appeal. Most people are well aware that smoking is going to cause them some sort of health problem and lighting up has, for many, become a small act of defiance.

In this context branding cigarettes “bad” is of limited use — what you really need to do is un-brand smoking entirely. Australia has taken this approach and passed legislation ensuring that cigarettes are now sold in identical olive-green packs with glaring health warnings, graphic photos and no brand logos.

Ultimately, government action is always more shocking than government advertising. While the new anti-smoking ads are a bit grim, the campaign is just beating a tired old drum. If the Department of Health wanted to produce a truly shocking message, it would do well to target its actions not at smokers but at Big Tobacco. — The Guardian, London

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