Media Campaigns

Media campaigns, a critical tool for tobacco control, are underutilized globally. Sustained large-scale campaigns can efficiently drive millions to quit smoking, prevent initiation of new smokers, and create an enabling environment for policy change.

As individuals’ knowledge and belief in the toxic health effects of tobacco use grows, the likelihood of using tobacco decreases and their support for protective policies increases. Mass media gives us the opportunity to efficiently persuade large populations about the urgent need for action. Using media to inspire individuals to quit tobacco or persuade them not to start using it, and societies to take up policies for a tobacco-free future is a critical part of the tobacco control toolbox.

Media campaigns are embedded both in both WHO FCTC Article 12 and the WHO MPOWER package – “W” for Warning. Successful campaigns change individual behavior, shift broader social norms, and build popular support for tobacco control policies. Moreover, research in countries across the Human Development Index (HDI) demonstrates that campaigns can be cost-effective – just a few cents per quit attempt in some countries.

Two essential components of successful campaigns are effective messaging and delivery. Research consistently demonstrates the effectiveness of campaigns that challenge audiences to deal with the specific negative impacts of smoking – e.g., cancer, blindness and lung disease. Some examples are victims’ real-world testimonials or graphic depictions of damage.

Best-practice campaigns use behavioral research to test messages with intended audiences— e.g., male smokers— to ensure they are effective and culturally relevant. In lower-HDI countries, costly research can be avoided by adapting campaigns from other areas that have a strong evidence of success and target similar populations— e.g., compelling graphic images have been found to have wide application across many cultures. Supporting campaign messages such as highlighting stories of happy ex-smokers may also reinforce smokers’ belief they can successfully quit. A poorly-messaged campaign can have little or no impact. Finally, it is critical to rigorously evaluate a campaign’s impact.

Underinvestment in media delivery and planning is a frequent failing of tobacco control programs. Successful use of mass media requires sustained campaigns with broad population reach. This includes keeping campaigns “on the air” most months of the year. The most successful campaigns use a mix of media channels— usually television and radio due to their high reach and proven impact —with social and digital media as an emerging tool in many key populations. Sustained media delivery with high reach, such as extended national television campaigns, can be expensive. Many countries have implemented innovative policies to ensure that their tobacco control media campaigns receive placements. These range from health promotion foundations that utilize tobacco taxes to fund campaigns to legislation that mandates television and radio channels dedicate a portion of prime-time programming to public health messages.

Recent evidence shows that campaigns can use social media to mobilize large populations to advocate for tobacco control policies. In Vietnam, small-dollar social media ads on Facebook were used to generate significant public discourse online and offline around pending legislation, which ultimately passed.

Bad Practice

Anti-tobacco education initiatives that are based within schools have been found to be largely ineffectual. The most impactful campaigns have been shown to be those using mass media to target large segments of the population, with hard-hitting messages on the harms of tobacco for most months of the year.


Photo Credit: Children smoking “Philippines, Luzon Island, Manila, Chinatown, street children.” Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo.

Good Practice

Australia’s long-running efforts using mass media have helped drive down tobacco use to record lows among adults and youth. The country’s sustained effort uses television, radio and digital platforms to achieve greater population reach and has produced graphic advertising that has been adapted around the world.


Photo Credit: Smoking figures Courtesy New York City Dept. of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Cutting-edge Practice

Turkey’s comprehensive tobacco control legislation requires TV and radio stations to air 90 minutes of Ministry of Health ads each month, including 30 minutes in peak hours. Using this innovative strategy, Turkey has mounted numerous anti-tobacco campaigns each year, reaching most citizens and driving millions to quit smoking.


Photo Credit: Turkey Ministry of Health ad “Mehmet”, Ministry of Health, Government of Turkey.

Mass Media Best Practice Countries

High- and low-HDI countries have mounted gold-standard media campaigns, but globally media campaigns remain underutilized.

WHO Best Practices – Elements of effective media campaigns:

  • Part of a comprehensive tobacco control program
  • Research was done to gain a thorough understanding of the target audience
  • Materials were pre-tested with the target audience in line with campaign objectives
  • Air time and ad placement was obtained using an effective media planning and buying process
  • Implementers worked with journalists to gain publicity or earned media
  • Aired on TV and/or radio
  • A process evaluation was performed regarding campaign implementation
  • An outcome evaluation was performed to assess impact

Innovative strategies for media placements

Mass media campaigns are extremely efficient, reaching millions at a very low cost per person, but also require significant government investments for media placements. Several governments have identified innovative strategies that allow them to overcome this barrier:

Transfer mass media campaign costs to the tobacco industry. For instance, in India whenever tobacco consumption is depicted in a film or television program, counter-messages determined by Ministry of Health must also be shown.

Dedicate tobacco tax revenue to mass media campaigns through health promotion funds or similar mechanisms. In Thailand and Vietnam, Health promotion funds have reached tens of millions through effective campaigns.

Require broadcasters to provide free air time. In Turkey, national tobacco control law requires all broadcasters to provide 90 minutes of tobacco control content a month.

Make multi-year funding commitments. In 2008 in Australia, government signed a multi-year agreement to fund states to run campaigns that operated through 2014.