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Can Digital Ads Influence Smoking Cessation Behaviors?

Online advertising could give the public health community new ways to target and reach their audiences. But are online ads effective for public health messages? A new analysis of data from the 2012 Tips From Former Smokers Campaign suggests that the answer is yes.

The study, “Does Digital Ad Exposure Influence Information-Seeking Behavior Online? Evidence From the 2012 Tips From Former Smokers National Tobacco Prevention Campaign,” was published in the March 2016 edition of the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

Online advertising offers several advantages for public health communications. The ads are much cheaper than traditional television Public Service Announcements (PSAs) and can be more effectively targeted to specific audiences by demography, geography or online behavior. In addition, they may offer a highly effective way to reach the increasing number of “cord cutters”—in particular younger audiences—who are migrating all of their entertainment and information seeking to the internet. However, there have been few quantitative studies that measure the effectiveness and impact of these online ads.

The Tips for Former Smokers campaign was launched by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2012. The first-ever paid national tobacco education campaign, the Tipscampaign profiles real people who are living with serious long-term health effects from smoking and secondhand smoke exposure. The campaign incorporated TV broadcast, radio, billboard and social media along with digital advertising. Previous studies analyzed the overall effectiveness and cost impact of the campaign, which is estimated to have prevented 17,000 premature deaths at a gain of 179,000 years of healthy life. A previous study showed that the healthcare costs saved were many times the cost of the campaign, making Tips a “best buy” in public health. 

The new study is the first to focus specifically on the effectiveness of online advertising in the campaign. The study went beyond simply counting “click through” behavior to analyze how the ads impact other types of information-seeking behavior. Using Comscore participants, who have agreed to allow researchers to track their online behavior, researchers were able to determine whether seeing the ads online influenced later information-seeking behaviors such as visiting the CDC Tips website or seeking out other smoking cessation resources. Measuring these latent effects gave researchers a much more nuanced and accurate understanding of how the ads influenced interest in smoking cessation. By comparing information-seeking activities of populations who were exposed to the ads to a control group of Comscore participants who did not see the online ads, researchers were able to quantify the impact of the ads.

The analysis showed that the online ads did have a real and measurable positive effect on the likelihood that a subject would look for information on smoking cessation online. As this is a first step on the road to quitting, it is a very positive sign for the public health community. It also suggests that online advertising may be a viable and cost-effective way to communicate other public health messages, such as diabetes awareness, maternal health or drug abuse prevention.

Battelle has a long history of public health communications work and research. They are currently expanding their health communications services in order to meet the needs of CDC and other public health clients. The Battelle Health and Analytics team brings together subject matter experts on a wide range of public health topics, from smoking cessation to childhood obesity, to design effective communication campaigns and educational programs that help people understand complex issues and make better health decisions for themselves and their families. They also have extensive experience in evaluating effectiveness and measuring results for public health campaigns.