Abstract: Kids and Pets: the Moralizing Effects of Care-Based Moral Appeals in Visual Tobacco Control Messages on Third-Person Regulation

◆ Sijia Yang, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Background: Attitudes towards health-related behaviors could be moralized by exposure to health messages. Attitude moralization refers to the process by which an individual’s construal of an issue, actor, or behavior gradually acquires moral significance—that it the change from “good/bad” to “right/wrong”. Moralized attitudes have unique behavioral consequences, one of which is the increased likelihood to engage in third-person regulation aiming to stop another person from engaging in a morally condemned health behavior (e.g., smoking around nonsmokers). In the context of tobacco control, such social interventions are critical to fostering anti-smoking normative influence and facilitating the implementation of smoke-free policies. Drawing on the Moral Foundations Theory (MFT), the current study presents data from a message effects experiment that examined whether visual moral appeals in tobacco control campaigns could moralize smokers’ attitudes towards smoking cigarettes, and whether such effects extend to prompt third-person regulation.

Method: A sample of 369 current adult smokers were recruited from Survey Sampling International. In a three-condition between-subject experiment, each smoker was randomized to view six graphic tobacco control messages that employed either care-based (care), purity-based (purity), or non-moral appeals (control). Messages were pre-tested to validate the presence of moral appeals. After all six message exposures, participants were asked to report their degree of attitude moralization towards smoking using an established 5-point scale (1 = strongly disagree and 5 = strongly agree, alpha = .84, M = 2.01, SD = 1.23, e.g., To what extent is your position on smoking cigarettes a reflection of your core moral beliefs and convictions?). Next, they reported their intention to engage in third-person regulation on a 4-point scale (1 = very unlikely and 4 = very likely, alpha = .92, M = 2.34, SD = 0.98). Items include, “If you see a pregnant woman arguing with a smoker who refuses to stop smoking cigarettes around her, how likely are you to step up and help the woman confront the smoker?”.

Results: The overall tests for differences between three message conditions were significant for attitude moralization, F (2, 366) = 3.05, p = .048, η^2 = .017, as well as for third-person regulation, F (2, 366) = 3.03, p = .049, η^2 = .015. Compared with the control condition, exposure to care appeals significantly increased smokers’ attitude moralization (b = 0.39, SE = 0.16, 95% CI [0.15, 0.62]) as well as their intention to engage in third-person regulation (b = 0.28, SE = 0.12, 95% CI [0.05, 0.52]). In contrast, effects of purity appeals were not significant. More importantly, attitude moralization significantly mediated the effects of care appeals (indirect = 0.08, 95% CI [0.02, 0.17]) even after controlling for the indirect effects of attitude change.

Conclusion: Care- but not purity-based visual moral appeals were found to further moralize smokers’ attitudes towards smoking, which in turn enhanced their intention to engage in third-person regulation. These results represent the first set of experimental evidence in the literature demonstrating the moralizing effects of visual health messages that employ moral appeals. Tobacco control campaigns could benefit from certain moral appeals especially care-based ones to reinforce anti-smoking norms and reduce secondhand harms.