Understanding of Cognitive Dissonance & Social Cognitive Theories & The application of them to Public Health Campaign (Smoking Kid – Thailand)


 Link to tvc: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g_YZ_PtMkw0


Cognitive dissonance theory and social cognitive theory together can be successfully used to deliver message to audience in health campaign, specifically anti-smoking campaign, then these theories may change audience’s attitude and behaviors, especially smokers’ behaviors, however to change behavior, the message has to be persuasive enough to affect audience’s attitude. Mass media is also one important role which supports public health campaign to send out it message (Lorien & Edward 2008). Cognitive dissonance is defined as a process when one receives a message or any information that contradicting to his/her beliefs and attitudes, it leads to the avoidance of obtaining message and the avoidance of behaviors (Severin & Tankard, 2010). Smokers usually avoid or ignore to see or obtain anti-smoking ads, posters or advices because these ways cause dissonance in their beliefs; they believe they can control their health while smoking, so they tend to find way to reduce discomfort-able feelings to achieve consonance (Neal, M 2012). While showing bad consequence of smoking such as lung cancer, dying soon, and black teeth, bad breath, health campaign usually fail to deliver message to smokers maybe because cognitive dissonance is not strong enough to really affect smokers so they tend to ignore. Within using social cognitive, theory of observation and imitation, then applying cognitive dissonance, Thai Health Promotion Foundation has successfully raised awareness of Thai smokers through a campaign called ‘Smoking Kid’ creating by Ogilvy Thai. Cognitive dissonance appears strongly in this campaign because of the appearance of kids with cigarette. Social cognitive applied to highlight the point Kids may imitate smokers to smoke. They also use mass media to spread the message widely. This paper aims to give literature review of two theories and an overview of ‘Smoking kid’ campaign and show how theories are applied to help the campaign achieve success.

Literature review

Cognitive dissonance appears when a person faces a message that conflicts his/her own beliefs, creates discomfort feelings. People tend to reduce dissonance by avoiding or ignoring unfamiliar message that may cause discomfort feeling (Severin & Tankard 2010). However, according to Festinger (1962), the larger the dissonance, the more pressure to decrease it and therefore the more chances for health organization to change audience’s attitude and behaviors. Therefore, the solution is to make sure cognitive dissonance is big enough to influence audiences then it will create bigger pressure for them to reduce it, especially smokers. This way will create success when deliver message in anti-smoking campaign. People tend to selectively seek for familiar message and ignore contradicting one. (Severin & Tankard 2010). However, there is a way to get audience’s attention when delivering uncomfortable message. According to Frey (1976), curiosity is the element that engages audience with unfamiliar message that they tend to avoid or ignore to receive. Selective exposure is used to reduce cognitive dissonance in an effective way (Bryant & Zillman, 2008) and selective attention is used to guide audience to achieve message after reducing dissonance. Emotions and feelings are used to affect audience’s perception; these elements have huge impact on the decision of changing opinions and behaviors/actions in public (Soodan, 2014). Social cognitive theory is defined as one observes and imitates the existing model. After observation stage, behavior can be occurred and shaped (Miller K 2005). Miller stated that imitating bad models, resulting bad behaviors. Kids are naïve and easily to imitate bad behaviors which often produce by adults (Allan Kazdin & Carlo Rotella 2003). The solution is to send message to remind adult that they should be a good image for their children to imitate (Rotella,C 2003).

Media text and theory application

Public communication campaign is defined as a beneficial campaign aimed to influence audience’s attitude and change their behaviors within enormous attempts through communication channels like mass media and through communication actions in a specific time (Atkin & Rice 2012). Public communication campaign is largely used in case of health and social issue. Selective exposure is a concept that one refer to perceive message that reinforces pre-existing beliefs while ignoring opposing or unfamiliar information. Although selective exposure provides useful message and reinforces audience’s knowledge, this element seems to have huge impact on spectators therefore sometimes it leads to failure when delivering message to audience. According to Tan (2012), Asian-Pacific is the region with high number of smokers: 30% of the world’s population. Therefore, anti-smoking campaign is always needed. In the case of anti-smoking campaign, selective exposure appears when smokers tend to avoid and ignore anti-smoking message because they think they can manage their health as good as normal person, threatened ads, posters are not scary at all and bad consequences are vague therefore anti-smoking commercial usually fail to connect with smokers and fail to raise their awareness. Ogilvy in Thailand has known smoker’s perception as they avoid receiving advices of smoking and ignoring seeing threatened ads and posters (The Government and Public Sector Practice, 2014). Ogilvy comes up with a totally new idea, which also creates cognitive dissonance but the bigger dissonance that catch smokers’ attention. Selective attention is used to guide audience (smokers) to achieve the message.

‘Smoking Kid’ Campaign is created when Thai Health promotion Foundation invested in anti-smoking TVC and provided the “Quit line 1600” to help smokers quit smoking and to reduce smoking amount in Thai. However, the number of calls in the Quitline remains low. The idea is to filming kids with cigarette on their hands, going around public streets and asking smokers for a light. This idea is a very creative idea. In adult’s perception, children, kids are naïve and innocent, children must live healthily and play safely. While the action of asking for a light by kids go opposing smokers’ beliefs, it creates cognitive dissonance in their mind (Festinger 1962). However, they cannot avoid the action of the kids; smokers refuse to give the kid a light and start to give the kid advices. They try to reduce discomfort feeling by explaining to the kids instead of ignoring or avoiding. They are accidentally received a message for themselves. “You care for me but why not care for yourself? – Call 1600 – Quit line to stop Smoking” By giving advices for those kids, smokers realize they are the models for those kids to imitate (Rotella, C 2003) and also remind themselves about the bad consequences of smoking. Social cognitive helps to produce the contradiction in smoker’s perception. Smokers usually forget children can imitate them to smoke, social cognitive leads to cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance appears strongly in this campaign because of the appearance of kids with cigarette. Social cognitive applied to highlight the point Kids may imitate smokers to smoke. They smartly apply cognitive dissonance and social cognitive theory, also using mass media to spread the message widely.

The result is outstanding. The video goes viral and creates mirror effect on smokers around the world in an emotional and inspiring way (Neal, M 2012). Online media is used to engage audience around the world. After launching, there are more than five million views on YouTube account and free press coverage in 30 countries. The percentage of calls at “1600 – Quit line” has increased to 40% after the campaign and the campaign raises almost 60% of Thailand population awareness of smoking affect (Wpp 2014). The campaign is successful to deliver message to smokers not only in Thailand but the whole world. Curiosity is created through online communication and because curiosity helps engage audience (Frey 1976) therefore it is a good solution for Thai organization to achieve success. Feelings and emotions are also created when using kids with risky issue like smoking hence reinforcing smokers’ perception.


To sum up, using social cognitive theory and cognitive dissonance efficiently will help public communication campaign to engage with audience and create more chances to gain success. Besides, applying these theories help executives to deeply understand audience’s perception so they can be creative and flexible to execute ideas and works that fit with audience’s mindset. Hence, the campaign may change public attitudes and behaviors based on effective tools and tactic uses. For example, to solve problem from selective exposure, the executives can use social cognitive which creates thoughts, feelings emotionally. Online media makes message go virally and also creates phenomenon curiosity in social norm. The ‘Smoking Kid’ campaign achieves success by effectively using social cognitive and dissonance through certain media channel: YouTube. Individually, I believe any public health campaign can gain success if they use cognitive dissonance theory and social cognitive theory to have deep understanding about their target audience perception then to have the correct message to deliver to them.


Atkin, C & Rice, R 2013, ‘Theory and principles of public communication campaigns’, Public communication campaigns, 4th edn, Business and Ecomonics, SAGE publication, p. 3-20.

Festinger, L 1962, ‘Cognitive dissonance’, Scientific American, vol. 207, is. 4, p. 93-106.

Frey, D & Wicklund, R 1978, ‘A clarification of selective exposure’, Journal of experimental social psychology, vol 78, p. 132-139

Lorien, C & Edward, W 2008, ‘The Effectiveness of Mass Communication to Change Public Behavior’, Annual Review of Public Health, vol.29

Neal, M 2912, ‘Heartbreaking Thai ‘smoking kids’ anti-smoking ad goes viral’, NewYorks Daily News, view 3rd September 2014, http://nydailynews.com/news/world/heartbreaking-thai-smoking-kids-anti-smoking-ad-viral-article-1.1100062/

Rotella, C & Kazdin, A 2008, ‘Your kids will imitate you: Use it as a force for good’, The Slate Group Article.

Soodan, V & Jamwal, M 2014, ‘Emotional branding as tool for dissonance reduction: a strategy for competitive advantage’, International monthly refereed Journal of research in Management and Technology, vol. 3, p. 25-32.

Severin, WJ & Tankard, JW 2010, ‘Festinger’s Theory of Cognitive Dissonance’, Communication Theories: Origin, methods, and uses in the mass media, Pearson, p. 142-145.

Tan, D 2012, ‘Smoking in Asia: A looming health Epidemic’, Asian Scientist, viewed 3rd September 2014, <http://www.asianscientist.com/features/smoking-in-asia-looming-health-epidemic-2012/>

The Government & Public Sector Practice, 2014, ‘Viral video prompts smokers to quit’, Wpp, viewed 3rd September 2014, <http://wpp.com/govtpractice/our-work/ogilvy-smoking-kid/>

Zillman, D & Bryant, J 2008, ‘Selective Exposure to Communication’, 1st edn, Routledge, p. 11-15


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