A male friend of mine recently showed me this photo, and told me that this is why he smokes.
I thought that was interesting. We’re bombarded with warnings about the danger of cigarettes all through our school years, the government keeps introducing further anti-smoking campaigns and yet here is a highly educated, politically aware, generally sensible young man who will look at a photo like this and decide that he wants to smoke.
How can such a phenomenon be explained? Certainly it relates to the power of visuals, and yet anti-smoking campaigns are also largely visual. On a deeper level however, it very much pertains to the issues discussed by Guy Debord in The Society of the Spectacle, in which he talks about “purely spectacular rebelliousness”. Smoking, amongst this demographic – largely ‘indie’ kids who do involve themselves in politics and social issues, while simultaneously pushing the barriers of social mores and, dichotomously, obsessing over aesthetics – is done almost entirely for the sake of spectacle.
One could argue, then, that positive images – those that appeal to their audience – are more coercive than negative images. Anti-smoking ads, following this vein of thinking, thus need to romanticize or glamorize non-smokers rather than vilifying those who do.
The overarching lesson here however is more general: the power of visuals. Not simply the power of graphs or charts, which make their purpose known, but rather the subconscious, coercive power held by the images that surround us – a power that is covert, subtle and often unnoticed.