Using viral e-mails to distribute tobacco control advertisements: an experimental investigation

J Health Commun. 2011 Aug;16(7):698-707. doi: 10.1080/10810730.2011.551998. Epub 2011 Jun 1.


The authors' objective was to conduct a trial of viral e-mail marketing as a distribution method for tobacco control advertisements. University students (n = 200) in the state of Western Australia were randomly allocated to receive 1 of 2 e-mails with hyperlinks to tobacco control advertisements ("Toilet" and "Rubbish") emphasizing the disgusting nature of smoking. Recipients followed a hyperlink to a Web page playing Toilet or Rubbish on endless loop. Viewers were encouraged to forward the e-mail to their friends and invited to complete an online survey about the advertisement. Unique downloads for each advertisement were identified by internet provider (IP) location and tallied by date and geographical location to assess subsequent dissemination beyond the initial 200 students. There were 826 unique viewings of the advertisements averaging 26.9 viewings per day for the first fortnight, followed by a lower average of 4.1 hits per day for the next 3.5 months. IP addresses identified hits from 3 other Australian states and 7 other countries. Online surveys were completed by 103 respondents (12.5% of total hits) but included few smokers (n = 9). Significantly more respondents rated Toilet as "funny" compared with Rubbish (40% vs. 11%; p < .05), likely explaining why the former accounted for significantly more viewings than the latter (487 vs. 339; p < .001). There was a greater than fourfold return in dissemination for each initial e-mail sent but daily hits rapidly deteriorated over time. Entertainment appears to facilitate viral e-mails being forwarded onwards but only exceptionally compelling tobacco control materials are ever likely to become self-perpetuating.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Advertising*
  • Chi-Square Distribution
  • Computer Security*
  • Electronic Mail*
  • Female
  • Health Education / methods*
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice*
  • Health Surveys
  • Humans
  • Information Dissemination
  • Logistic Models
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Public Health / methods
  • Smoking Cessation / methods*
  • Students
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Universities
  • Western Australia
  • Young Adult