Alcohol pictorial health warning labels: The impact of self-affirmation and health warning severity

Carlos Sillero-Rejon, Angela S. Attwood, Anna K.M. Blackwell, José Angel Ibáñez-Zapata, Marcus R. Munafò, Olivia M. Maynard

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Citations (SciVal)


Background: We examined whether enhancing self-affirmation among a population of drinkers, prior to viewing threatening alcohol pictorial health warning labels, would reduce defensive reactions and promote reactions related to behaviour change. We also examined how health warning severity influences these reactions and whether there is an interaction between self-affirmation and severity. Methods: In this experimental human laboratory study, participants (n = 128) were randomised to a self-affirmation or control group. After the self-affirmation manipulation was administered, we tracked participants' eye movements while they viewed images of six moderately-severe and six highly-severe pictorial health warning labels presented on large beer cans. Self-reported responses to the pictorial health warning labels were then measured, including avoidance, reactance, effectiveness, susceptibility and motivation to drink less. Finally, participants reported their self-efficacy to drink less and their alcohol use. Results: There was no clear evidence that enhancing self-affirmation influenced any outcome. In comparison to moderately-severe health warnings, highly-severe health warnings increased avoidance and reactance and were perceived as more effective and increased motivation to drink less. Conclusions: These findings call into question the validity of the self-affirmation manipulation, which is purported to reduce defensive reactions to threatening warnings. We discuss possible explanations for this null effect, including the impact of participants' low perceived susceptibility to the risks shown on these pictorial health warning labels. Our finding that highly-severe health warnings increase avoidance and reactance but are also perceived as being more effective and more likely to motivate people to drink less will inform future health warning design and have implications for health warning label theory.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1403
JournalBMC Public Health
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 22 Dec 2018


  • Alcohol
  • Eye-tracking
  • Health-warning
  • Self-affirmation
  • Severity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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