Similar Advertising Strategies Used by Indoor Tanning and Tobacco Industries

While the proven negative health consequences of smoking and tanning are undeniable, tobacco and indoor tanning advertisers would like consumers to think otherwise. In fact, a new study comparing the tobacco-advertisements-smoking-desires and indoor tanning products found several similarities in how these two industries market unhealthy products.

In the report entitled, “Comparison of advertising strategies between the indoor tanning and tobacco industries,” published online in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, dermatologist David A. Jones, MD, PhD, FAAD, in private practice in Newton, Mass., presented results of an observational study which concluded that both industries employ advertising strategies to counteract health concerns of their products in order to positively influence the consumer’s perception of smoking and indoor tanning and drive industry demand.

“The indoor tanning industry reported domestic sales in excess of $2.7 billion in 2007(1), and it relies heavily on advertising to sell the misleading idea of a ‘safe’ or ‘healthy’ tan to the public,” said Dr. Jones. “Even though it is well documented that UV radiation from natural sunlight and indoor tanning devices is a known cause of skin cancer, the public is not always aware of the serious health risks associated with indoor tanning - and the tanning industry’s advertising practices capitalize on this fact.”

In reviewing 2,000 advertisements from four large tobacco advertising image databases, Dr. Jones and his colleague, Jennifer Herrmann, MD, identified four key strategy profiles that were used to sell their products. These strategies included: mitigating health concerns, appealing to a sense of social acceptance, emphasizing psychotropic effects, and targeting specific population segments. Dr. Jones added that tobacco advertising was selected as a reference framework because it is well documented and designed to promote a product with known health hazards.

Subsequently, a collection of approximately 350 contemporary tanning advertisements was compiled from a variety of sources - such as industry magazines, salon and industry Web sites, and in-store promotional materials - and evaluated based on the four key strategies identified in the tobacco advertisements.

As the increased incidence of lung cancer, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and other health risks linked to smoking continued to mount over the years, the tobacco industry adjusted its advertising strategy to mitigate these known health risks. Specifically, the tobacco industry recruited physicians as crucial allies in marketing their products, reassured the public that their brands had competitive health advantages, and commended the intelligence of smokers for choosing cigarettes marketed as “safer” cigarettes.

Using Physicians as Allies

Dating back to the 1930s and 1940s, Dr. Jones and his colleague found that physicians wearing white lab coats frequently appeared in cigarette advertisements - using the doctor’s image to reassure consumers that cigarettes were safe. Similarly, indoor tanning advertisements have resorted to using physicians and citing medical research studies to try to persuade the public that indoor tanning is somehow “safe” or “safer” than tanning outdoors.

“The thinking behind these ads is that if physicians do something, then somehow it must be okay,” said Dr. Jones. “However, these ads omit the results of a recent survey indicating that 100 percent of dermatologists and 84 percent of non-dermatologist physicians would discourage UV tanning for non-medical purposes, even in healthy patients.”

Promoting Misleading Health Advantages

When awareness of the health risks of cigarettes began to grow in the 1950s and 1960s, the tobacco industry responded with what it coined as “safer,” “filtered” cigarettes. Dr. Jones noted that the goal of these ads was to convince consumers that filtered cigarettes provided protection from harmful effects of smoking, but without admitting that smoking was detrimental to one’s health.

To dispel growing concerns about the dangers of UV exposure, the indoor tanning industry countered with “harm reduction” campaigns that were similar to those used by the tobacco industry. For example, some advertisers began promoting their tanning beds as “UVB-free” or “99% pure UVA” during the 1980s when research confirmed that UVB rays are carcinogenic. These ads, of course, failed to mention that UVA rays also are harmful and can cause skin cancer.

Another popular harm reduction tactic used in tanning advertisements is to promote the health benefits of vitamin D production from UV exposure. In these types of ads, consumers are led to believe that UV exposure from both natural sunlight and tanning beds is beneficial in producing vitamin D, which research suggests may provide protection against heart disease and other cancers.

“What these ads omit is that UV exposure increases your risk of skin cancer, and there are safer ways to get this important vitamin,” said Dr. Jones. “An adequate amount of vitamin D can be obtained from vitamin D supplements - without the health risks of obtaining vitamin D from intentional UV exposure.”

Nothing Smart about Ads that Appeal to the Consumer’s Intelligence

Another tactic used by tobacco manufacturers in advertising is to try to somehow make consumers believe they are “smart” by smoking a certain brand of cigarettes over another brand. Dr. Jones and his colleague found that the indoor tanning industry makes similar appeals to the intelligence of consumers by promoting sunburn prevention at tanning bed facilities through trained professionals who teach consumers how to “tan safely” without getting sunburned.

“This tactic fails to mention that tanning to prevent sunburn provides only an SPF protection of 3, while simultaneously causing damage to the skin that can lead to future skin cancers,” said Dr. Jones. “In addition, studies also show that staff members of indoor tanning facilities do not always enforce the tanning intensity of tanning beds and time regulations of their patrons.”

While Dr. Jones and his colleague concluded that further consumer education about the dangers of tanning is needed, they also point out that the lack of government regulation has allowed the tanning industry to thrive on the public’s misconceptions about tanning through deceptive advertising practices.

FTC Bans Misleading Indoor Tanning Ads

Recognizing the seriousness of this issue, in January 2010 the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued a consent order that prohibits the Indoor Tanning Association (ITA) from making false health and safety claims about indoor tanning. The American Academy of Dermatology (Academy) raised its concerns about the false statements being made by the ITA with the FTC in 2008 after the ITA launched an advertising campaign designed to portray indoor tanning as safe and beneficial.

“The American Academy of Dermatology commends the FTC for its investigation into the false and deceptive health and safety claims about indoor tanning being perpetuated by the indoor tanning industry,” said dermatologist David M. Pariser, MD, FAAD, president of the American Academy of Dermatology. “The scientific facts are clear: Exposure to UV radiation - either from the sun or from artificial light sources such as indoor tanning - increases the risk of developing skin cancer, including melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.”

Headquartered in Schaumburg, Ill., the American Academy of Dermatology (Academy), founded in 1938, is the largest, most influential, and most representative of all dermatologic associations. With a membership of more than 16,000 physicians worldwide, the Academy is committed to: advancing the diagnosis and medical, surgical and cosmetic treatment of the skin, hair and nails; advocating high standards in clinical practice, education, and research in dermatology; and supporting and enhancing patient care for a lifetime of healthier skin, hair and nails. For more information, contact the Academy at 1-888-462-DERM (3376) or

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