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Beware those cigarette ads ... you could eat more junk

Indian street children wear human skull masks during a " World No Tobacco Day" awareness rally in Kolkata, India, Tuesday, May 31, 2011. According to the World Health Organization, this year, the tobacco epidemic will kill nearly 6 million people, including some 600,000 nonsmokers who will die from exposure to tobacco smoke.( AP Photo/Sucheta Das)

Sucheta Das/AP

Exposure to cigarette advertising causes people to give in to unrelated temptations, such as eating unhealthy food or drinking excessively, according to research conducted at the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario.

"When you resist one temptation − let's say you got a little urge to indulge in chocolate cake at lunch but didn't − you only have so much resistance," says professor Dante Pirouz, who authored the research published in the April edition of Impact. "So if you resist the chocolate cake, you might drive a little faster, get angry quicker or drink more at the club that night."

What came as the biggest surprise to Dr. Pirouz and her colleagues was that non-smokers appeared to be more vulnerable to the discipline-eroding effects of cigarette advertising than smokers. "The smokers had a mechanism that allowed them to cope with this craving response," says Dr. Pirouz. "They've worked out ways to compartmentalize their habits, such as smoking in the car during their commute because it's difficult to smoke at work."

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Non-smokers, on the other hand, didn't demonstrate the same ability to resist temptation. "We asked them about their intent to drink in the future and it went up. We asked them their preference for a junk food snack versus a healthy snack, and they were more likely to prefer an unhealthy junk food snack after being exposed to cigarette advertising."

This research is an outcome of Dr. Pirouz's lifelong interest in the role and effects of advertising. Her father was an actor and model, and much of his early work was for alcohol and tobacco companies. "He was the African American Winston guy for a number of years," Dr. Pirouz remembers. As a small girl, she would gaze at her father in framed copies of print advertisements and wonder: "Are these ads good? Are they bad? Are they enticing people to do something they shouldn't?"

It was years before Dr. Pirouz was able to explore these questions. She first pursued a bachelor's degree from UCLA, then a master's in international business and an MBA. One of her first jobs was with a marketing firm in New York on campaigns for many products, and she eventually found herself working on a cigarette company file. Her career included seeking out international business opportunities around the world and even a stint with a dot-com company during the boom, but she continued to think about those fundamental questions about advertising. "I was trying to balance the criticisms of advertising with the good things, the many ways in which they help consumers make better decisions. And having worked in advertising, it still wasn't clear to me."

In 2004, Dr. Pirouz decided to make the jump into research and began her PhD. "I wanted to go back into research because I wanted to make things better for consumers," she says. "On one hand, I worked in advertising. But I was also a consumer who suffered a lot from behaviours and habits that weren't always healthy or smart. And so my curiosity has always been: why do consumers do things that aren't in their favour?"

This research study is an example of how consumer behaviour is being better understood as business researchers increasingly turn to neuroscience for answers. Dr. Pirouz was initially drawn to neuroscience when she read early studies that used neurological tools to attempt to solve economic problems, such as why people take risky gambles.

Dr. Pirouz and her colleagues used new functional MRI technology, which allows researchers to observe how the brain reacts to stimuli in real time. Until interdisciplinary research like this, those researching consumer behaviour typically relied on self-reporting. Often the research subjects weren't even fully aware of their intents and preferences, so using brain scans was a useful alternative.

Dr. Pirouz believes that the most encouraging revelation to come out of this research is that people can become better consumers. If smokers have developed mechanisms to better protect themselves from being tempted by advertising, it stands to reason that anyone could develop this ability. "We are bombarded with so many consumer choices we need to consider," she says. "But we can get better at resisting temptation. In knowing where our shortcomings are we can arm ourselves with strategies to do better."

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Self control is not only related to consumer choices, of course, but has been linked to many life-outcome indicators. Research has shown that young people who have developed self control are more likely to get married and stay married, earn a higher income, and continue their education.

And when it comes to Dr. Pirouz's original questions about advertising - Were her father's advertisements good or bad: "I still believe that advertising is extremely valuable and helpful. As a consumer, advertising helps me by telling me what solutions companies have come up with that might make my life better," she says.

But she feels there is a lot of room for companies to improve, and Dr. Pirouz believes that research like hers can help both companies and regulators find the balance between helping consumers make choices and steering them in an unhealthy direction. "There are ways that we can build the relationship between consumers and companies that is more mutually beneficial, so that all of the benefits don't always accrue asymmetrically to the company side."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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