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Published on March 2, 2011

The Value of Shock

Would this make you reach for a cigarette?

We were fascinated to learn yesterday of an innovative- and highly controversial- anti-drugs campaign launched by the County Sheriff’s Office of Multnomah, Oregon.

From Drugs to Mugs, the follow-up to Multnomah’s equally shocking Faces of Meth campaign from 2004, aims to illustrate the deleterious effects of hard drugs and especially methamphetamine on users by visually documenting the decline in their facial appearance over time- in some cases, after as little as six months of heroin, cocaine, crack or crystal meth use. The images, a series of ‘Before and After’ mugshots taken from the Sheriff’s office records, offer compelling evidence of the extreme toxicity of the drugs and the potentially devastating consequences of their use. In almost all cases, the subjects photographed appear to have aged dramatically in the intervening period; many are gaunt and haggard, some have experienced hair or tooth loss, and all have suffered damage to the complexion, with acne outbreaks and facial lesions a recurring theme of the images.

The Multnomah Sheriff’s Office aims to present the photographs in high schools across American- thereby discouraging students from experimenting with drugs. Implicit in this strategy is the assumption that exposure to the images will indeed turn teenagers off the idea of crack, or coke, or meth- that seeing the (unarguably terrible) effects of the drugs play out on other bodies will be enough to quell their curiosity.

Which makes us wonder: do shocking images really work, in public health campaigns? Is health education more effective when it’s accompanied by an unforgettable visual?

As healthcare communications specialists, we spend a great deal of time thinking about ways to get positive health and lifestyle messages across to our audiences. Moreover, as media and advertising consumers, we are frequently confronted with public health campaigns which operate on the premise that shocking=memorable=effective. For several years now, cigarette packets in the UK have carried mandatory health messages reminding smokers that “Smoking Kills” and “Smokers Die Younger,” as well as grisly accompanying photographs of blackened lungs, rotted teeth, clogged arteries- and memorably, a wilting, half-smoked cigarette, signifying a penis afflicted by smoking-related impotence. Successive governments and UK health charities routinely spend millions on advertising campaigns designed to highlight the potentially dangerous effects of binge drinking and unprotected sex through similarly shocking means- suggesting that, at least in public health terms, a picture may indeed be worth a thousand words. The World Health Organisation certainly agrees: in 2009, it issued a report definitively stating that warning images on cigarette packets deter people from smoking.

So, what do you think? Are extreme images effective in conveying public health messages? Is there value in shock? Let us know your opinion via the Reply option below.

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