While media research may still fall short of identifying solid causal links between watching movies and behavior, it’s getting better at identifying how specific behaviors could be influenced by what’s on screen. Take smoking for example — as a single, identifiable behavior, it’s an ideal target for media influence research. Behaviors like violence, in contrast, take multiple forms and often manifest from a tangle of underlying psychological variables — much harder to tie back to watching a movie.
Many recent studies have addressed the movies-smoking question with a focus on kids, teenagers and college students. But before we get into those, here are a few facts:
- About 70% of all movies made in the U.S. contain cigarette smoking
- Roughly 20-25% of adult characters in movies smoke
- Smokers in movies are typically more affluent than the average adult smoker
- Smoking is rarely associated with poor health in movies
- On-screen smoking accounts for 1-2 minutes on average, per movie
The first four probably don’t surprise you, but the last one surprised me. If there is an influence on behavior from on-screen smoking, it doesn’t have a very big window of opportunity to assert itself — and the issue of who is smoking in movies and their particular influence becomes all the more important.
One study began addressing the question by identifying how many smoking impressions (how many times a viewer sees someone smoking) children see over the course of several movies. The finding was that 500 movies delivered roughly 14 billion smoking impressions to U.S. children ages 10-14. Of that number, 30 actors delivered at least 50 million smoking impressions each. For instance, Mel Gibson had 21 episodes of smoking in his movies, delivering more than 90 million smoking impressions.
So, clearly kids see a lot of smoking in movies, and it’s being done by a relatively small number of popular actors. Studies from the 80s onward have indicated that even brief exposure to smoking in movies influences beliefs about smoking if, that is, those doing the smoking have a high enough social status among the viewers.
Which brings me to what I think is the most interesting study on this topic to date. Researchers wanted to know if a viewer strongly identifies with a particular protagonist in a movie, will that protagonist’s smoking influence the viewer’s thoughts about smoking?
Turns out, it does. Greater identification with a smoking protagonist predicted (1) stronger “implicit associations” between the self and smoking for smokers and non-smokers (in other words, associations that they were unaware of or wouldn’t explicitly admit to ), and (2) increased desire for those who already smoke to go light one up.
The reasons this happens are interwoven with an intriguing dynamic called narrative transport. When we watch a movie, we often identify more with one character for any number of reasons — our attention is engaged by his/her emotions and behaviors, we slide into the character’s cinematic shoes. Years of research have amply demonstrated that it’s easier to be influenced by someone whose shoes we’re trying on, be they physical or virtual. The stronger this identification becomes, the better the chances that our thinking (about smoking or any number of things) will be influenced. It’s not a given that behavior will necessarily follow, but the door is open.
Up to a point, anyway. As a parting thought, one study found that showing an anti-smoking advertisement just before a movie had a blunting effect on narrative transport — not unlike a short-term thought vaccine — which is why you might see an ad from the Truth Campaign just before the lights go down.